Legislators report gifts, travel

Published 9:42 pm Friday, March 17, 2017

Five of seven state legislators representing Suffolk accepted gifts or paid travel from November 2015 to December 2016.

Data reported by the Virginia Public Access Project showed fewer than half of the 140 General Assembly members reported accepting meals, tickets to events and other gifts valued at more than $50 during the last eight months of 2016.

During that period, 41 percent of General Assembly members reported gifts.

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Of Senate Republicans, 24 percent of them reported gifts, compared to 68 percent of Senate Democrats.

In the House, 27 percent of Republicans reported gifts, compared to 62 percent of Democrats.

There has been a marked downward trend since 2013, when legislators reported nearly $275,000 worth of gifts. In 2016, they reported only a little more than $50,000.

The amount of gifts has been trending downward since then-Gov. Bob McDonnell was named in a gifts scandal, which ultimately led to his conviction on public corruption charges. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned his conviction, but the value of reported gifts continues to fall.

Sen. Tommy Norment, a Republican who represents a small portion of North Suffolk, reported a trip to the National Conference of State Legislatures in France. The $3,303 trip was for executive leadership development, he reported.

Sen. Louise Lucas, a Democrat who represents a portion of Suffolk, reported $1,010 for a trip to the Southern Regional Education Board meeting in Little Rock, Ark. She also reported a $117 “Virginia Night” at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Chicago, Ill., as well as two tickets to a dinner and reception for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, valued at $300.

Sen. John Cosgrove reported a $500 stipend for the Southern States Energy Board conference in Little Rock. He said he paid about $1,000 in his own money for expenses incurred during the trip, including airfare.

Cosgrove said it was important that he make the trip to that conference to represent Virginia.

“None of the other folks from Virginia could go, and it’s important we be represented there dealing with energy issues,” he said. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and solar energy are only a couple of energy-related issues that will affect the state in the near future, he added.

“It’s a good way to exchange information, and you try not to have to reinvent the wheel in each state,” he said.

Cosgrove also accepted tickets worth $186 to a football game at Old Dominion University, his alma mater.

“The amount of gifts and things have really gone down,” Cosgrove said. “You’re still going to see travel, though, because we still have to go to these conferences. They have meetings, and they can only have them in one place, so whoever’s not from that state has to travel to them.”

Delegate Matthew James, a Democrat who represents part of Suffolk, reported only a $55 dinner with Richard T. Cornwell, a Verizon lobbyist.

“I had some specific issues I wanted to flesh out,” James said, adding that a number of legislators attended the dinner. “We were trying to understand some of the issues that were coming up. I use those meetings as well as meetings in my office so I can make a better informed decision.”

James said many legislators are being more careful about the gifts and travel they accept these days.

“We’ve all looked at those types of things fairly closely, and unless they’re very important, we try not to do those.”

Delegate Chris Jones, a Republican who represents part of Suffolk, reported only a $50 tie from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, where he sits on the board.