Saturday, February 4, 2006

RICHMOND — Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, accepted an $18,000 Caribbean vacation last year, putting him atop the list of Virginia elected officials who in 2005 accepted nearly $315,000 in gifts, trips, concert tickets and other gratuities from corporations, interest groups and wealthy persons.

The newly elected governor’s winter getaway on Mustique — a private island playground for rock stars and royalty — was paid for by Albemarle County investor James B. Murray Jr.

Many of the trips were business related, but a Kaine spokesman said the governor’s 10-day stay at Mr. Murray’s vacation home was all about rest and relaxation.

Mr. Kaine “saw this as a unique opportunity to get away with his wife and three children after a year of campaigning and on the eve of four years in the spotlight,” said Kevin Hall, an administration press secretary.

Mr. Murray became wealthy by investing in the cellular telephone industry in the 1980s with his longtime friend and Kaine predecessor, Mark Warner, a Democrat.

The trips and gifts are neither illegal nor unusual for Virginia elected officials.

However, ordinary constituents lose faith in government when they see their elected representatives accepting lavish gifts from people and organizations with money, said Leah Rush of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity in the District

“Especially when it’s a blatantly fun thing, it alters the public trust in government that they’re doing the work they were hired to do,” she said.

About half of the states impose limits on gifts to legislators, but Virginia and the rest of them “pretty much allow anything,” Mrs. Rush said.

However, Virginia requires legislators to report the gifts, compared to numerous other states that leave the reporting to lobbyists.

The reports were filed with the clerks of the state House and Senate. The nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project compiled a digital database from the reports and made possible the computer analysis on which this article is based.

One of the other more exotic and expensive trips was a $3,593 moose hunt in Canada last fall for Delegate Watkins M. Abbitt Jr., an Appomattox independent. The Virginia Sheriffs Association paid for the trip.

Another was three days at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas for Mr. Abbitt, ($1,984); Delegate John J. Welch III, Virginia Beach Republican ($1,898); Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat ($1,347); and Sen. Marty E. Williams, Newport News Republican ($2,335.) The Virginia Auto Dealers Association paid for the trip.

The 2005 total for gifts, trips and travel was up slightly from the $284,000 total in 2004.

State government paid about $106,000, or about a third of the overall 2005 total.

The Senate spent $66,646 and the House spent $39,184 to send their members to conferences and workshops, mostly conducted by nonprofit organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislators.

The House last year paid nearly $5,600 to send Delegate Harvey B. Morgan to conferences in four cities. Mr. Morgan, Gloucester Republican, said they were all-day seminars on insurance industry regulations and business practices — tedious but essential to his role as House Commerce and Labor Committee chairman.

“I work hard at those meetings,” he said.

House Democratic Leader Franklin P. Hall, of Richmond, traveled to Mexico and Sweden. The Massachusetts-based State Legislative Leaders Foundation paid the $6,500 bill. Mr. Hall serves on the nonprofit foundation’s board.

Mr. Abbitt said he had already planned his moose hunting expedition to Newfoundland before the sheriffs association got involved.

His regret: “I didn’t get a moose.”

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