Virginia Senate considers ethics bill

Published 6:50 pm Saturday, February 7, 2015

By Benjamin May

Capital News Service


The Senate Rules Committee has advanced legislation that tightens the code of ethics for politicians by prohibiting them from receiving gifts worth more than $100.

The full Senate now has until Tuesday to pass the bill, which refines the ethics law adopted last year by the General Assembly. Otherwise, it will be dead for this legislative session.

The Rules Committee unanimously endorsed Senate Bill 1424, which had emerged Wednesday from its Ethics and Conflicts of Interest Subcommittee.

Ethical standards for public officials became the focus of legislative attention after former Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted of corruption last year for accepting gifts from a businessman. McDonnell, who is appealing, has been sentenced to two years in prison.

The subcommittee rolled together many bills addressing what is appropriate for public officials to accept, disclose or refuse. The chief sponsor of SB 1424 is Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg; seven other senators, both Republicans and Democrats, are co-sponsoring the bill.

“You know why we’re doing this,” Norment said at the subcommittee meeting. “Because the media is on our back.” He later said he expects more criticism from the media over the General Assembly’s handling of the ethics issue this session.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who succeeded McDonnell, has called for a $100 limit on gifts to public officials. He also would like the General Assembly to create an independent commission, with subpoena powers, to enforce ethical standards.

SB 1424 doesn’t go that far. “I don’t want to empower this ethics committee but so much,” Norment said.

The legislation would:

  • Set a $100 limit on gifts.
  • Delete the distinction between tangible gifts and intangible gifts, such as travel, lodging and meals. The limit would apply to both.
  • Increase lobbyist registration by $50. The money would help fund the Ethics Advisory Council.
  • Create a Class 6 felony for knowingly misstating information on ethics disclosure forms.
  • Lower the number of Ethics Advisory Council members from 15 to 10.

The bill includes some exceptions to the cap on gifts. “Gifts received from business associates, relatives, or while in attendance at a personal celebration are not subject to this prohibition,” the measure states.

Moreover, a public official “may accept or receive a gift or a combination of gifts with a value in excess of $100 when such gift is accepted or received while in attendance at a widely attended event.”

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Springfield, joked that tightening the ethical rules could lead to more convictions of public officials.

“If we keep going the way we’re going, we won’t have to worry about any empty beds in [the state prison at] Mecklenburg,” Saslaw said.