Lawmaker gifts decrease

Published 6:56 pm Monday, July 27, 2015

By Matthew A. Ward and Tracy Agnew

A change in how gifts to Virginia lawmakers are reported, spurred by the corruption charges against former Gov. Bob McDonnell last year, appears to have radically reduced the amount of gifts Suffolk’s delegation is accepting.

The decrease is partially because fewer lawmakers, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, declared gifts during the six-month period from November 2014 to April 2015, as opposed to the prior, longer reporting period of December 2013 to October 2014. But it’s also because those who continued to accept gifts accepted far fewer and of considerably less value.

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The shorter reporting period was necessitated by a change in how gifts are reported.

Looking at November through April, Delegate Lionel Spruill Sr. declared Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tickets from Norfolk State University worth $167, and four tickets to the circus — total value $100 — from Feld Entertainment.

Dinner tabs picked up for Spruill were $116, by Appalachian Power Company; $94, by Verizon; $87, by law firm Macaulay & Burtch; and the Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association bought him one worth $58.

For 2014, Spruill accepted gifts and paid conferences valued at $3,659, including travel and lodging worth $1,665 from Parx Casino, and two dinners and a lunch worth a combined $810 from law firm Hunton & Williams.

For the more recent, shorter period, Delegate Matthew James reported two dinners from the Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association, together worth $107. In 2014, his gifts and paid conferences included MEAC tickets from NSU worth $334 for he and his wife, while Dominion also treated them both to a $192 dinner, and Delegate James alone to a $140 dinner.

At a combined $3,961, the biggest gift-taker in 2014 among Suffolk lawmakers was Sen. Louise Lucas, but she disclosed no gifts or paid conferences between November and April.

For 2014 prior to November, Lucas reported a $3,677 trip to research casinos, paid for by Parx Casino, and the Washington Redskins treated her to a football game.

Sen. John Miller enjoyed a $69 reception from Newport News Shipbuilding and a $50 book from Virginia Forever in the most recent period. His gifts in the prior period were valued at $351, which included $276 for an awards dinner from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which he attended with his wife.

In the most recent period, Sen. Tommy Norment was treated to a $106 dinner by Capital One. In the period before that, he had taken gifts and dinner valued at $217.

Delegate Chris Jones and Sen. John Cosgrove both disclosed gifts for the first 10 months of 2014, but none thereafter. Dominion paid for Jones’ $1,685 trip to tour its liquefied natural gas project at Cove Point in Maryland, and the Virginia Maritime Association bought him a $94 dinner. Cosgrove’s largest gift was $747 to attend the Virginia Auto Dealers Association annual conference with his wife.

As has been his policy since he was elected, Delegate Rick Morris has taken no gifts.

“It just makes it easier with the law,” Morris said. “It’s complicated with the tracking. I think the law can be used as a weapon against political adversaries, so I’d rather just not open that door.”

Morris said his personal policy makes it harder to get together with constituents, for example when he has to decline dinner invitations from groups to speak to them about issues.

“They’re just trying to be hospitable,” he said. “Sometimes it seems like you’re being standoffish. That’s just the way the environment is these days.”

Jones said his Dominion trip was a fact-finding trip to visit the natural gas project, a topic that is becoming increasingly more important in Virginia, particularly in Hampton Roads.

“I typically have not accepted gifts or gone to dinner over my career,” Jones said.

He said he believed the sharp decrease in gifts is due to “heightened awareness.”

Cosgrove echoed Jones’ comments.

“Everybody has a heightened awareness since we passed the ethics bill,” Cosgrove said. “I think everybody is being very careful about gifts and travel.”

The General Assembly in its 2015 session passed a bill that creates a $100 aggregate annual cap on all gifts, down from $250. The distinction between tangible gifts — such as items or cash — and intangible gifts — such as meals or theater tickets — has also been eliminated.