- Associated Press - Friday, February 20, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - In the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s conviction on corruption charges, Virginia lawmakers say they are moving to tighten the ethics laws governing public officials’ behavior.

But when two members of the Virginia Senate leadership were asked how much they earned from other state jobs, both refused to disclose how much they earned from those positions.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment is commissioner of accounts for Williamsburg and James City County. Sen. Ryan McDougle, chairman of the Senate Republican caucus, is assistant commissioner of accounts for Hanover County. Commissioners of accounts and their assistants oversee the disposition of estates.

Norment is the chief Senate patron of this year’s ethics overhaul legislation. In discussing it on the Senate floor, he has emphasized the importance of transparency and disclosure.

The system relies heavily on public disclosure of officials’ personal finances, including income, debt, business interests and stock holdings.

Yet when The Associated Press submitted open-records requests to Norment and McDougle asking how much they earned last year from their additional state jobs, they both declined to reveal the numbers.

The pair said they had consulted the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council and were told the information is not required to be disclosed.

“I don’t mean not to be transparent, but they said I didn’t have to do it so I chose not to do it,” Norment said.

Norment also said he feels entitled not to divulge the income he earns as commissioner of accounts because the fees do not come from public funds. He likened the fees to the income he earns as a private attorney.

McDougle did not respond to a request for comment.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, an advocacy group, said she believes the income earned by commissioners of accounts should be public.

“They’re publicly appointed. They’re performing a public function,” Rhyne said. “And like every other government position out there, they should be disclosing their salaries.”

Norment’s and McDougle’s extra state jobs have the potential to bring them multiple times the income they receive as lawmakers. State senators are paid $18,000 a year plus expenses.

In the past, Norment has reported earning as much as $120,000 a year as commissioner of accounts.

Commissioners’ fees are set by the judges who appoint them. The fees are paid by the heirs of the estate being settled.

In an effort to promote uniformity, the state Supreme Court has established a scale of suggested fees based on the size of the estate. Under those guidelines, the fee for settling a large estate could range as high as $10,000.

Norment and McDougle were appointed by local circuit judges whom they helped put on the bench in their role as lawmakers.

The judges who appoint commissioners of accounts are appointed by the General Assembly. Norment and McDougle both sit on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, which interviews and certifies candidates for judgeships.

They are the only two current lawmakers serving as commissioners or assistants. Several of the positions are held by former lawmakers and relatives of lawmakers.

There are limits to how much lawmakers must disclose about their income. Under both current law and this year’s proposed revisions, they need only disclose the sources of any income over $5,000 a year - not how much they earn from those sources.

On his annual disclosure statement for 2014, Norment listed his commissioner of accounts job as a source of income, but did not disclose how much he earned. McDougle, on his statement, did not list his job as assistant commissioner.

State employee compensation is public information under state law. But Maria Everett, executive director of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council, said commissioners of accounts’ income is excluded from disclosure because those offices are not “public bodies” as defined in the law.

Norment also has a third state job. He earns $60,000 a year as a part-time faculty member and policy adviser at the College of William and Mary.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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