- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Critics of new ethics legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly say it fails to solve the problem that spurred lawmakers to act in the first place: preventing a scandal like the one that engulfed former Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Lawmakers passed an ethics bill in the final minutes of the 2015 legislative assembly, which ended last week. Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he’s still reviewing the bill and hasn’t said whether he will sign it, veto it or offer amendments for lawmakers to consider later during a veto session.

Proponents said the bill, which places new limits on gifts lawmakers can receive, will give the public renewed faith in their public officials following McDonnell’s conviction on corruption charges last year.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in September of taking more than $165,000 in low-interest loans and fancy gifts from vitamin salesman Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his products. Both McDonnells have been sentenced to prison, but are currently free as they appeal their convictions.

“We were trying to make sure we … restored as much of the public trust as possible,” Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, said Friday shortly before the bill was approved, “And capturing every so-called Jonnie Williams problem was important to us.”

In the shadow of the McDonnell scandal, lawmakers have tried for two consecutive legislative sessions to tighten the state’s ethics rules. Lawmakers instituted a $250 gift cap last year, after the McDonnells had been indicted but not yet gone to trial, on tangible gifts lawmakers can take from lobbyists; their clients; or others who do business with or are seeking to do business with the state. This year they lowered the gift cap to $100 -though they made it per gift instead of an aggregate total - and included non-tangible gifts like meals, trips and entertainment.

But critics said that only some of the issues highlighted by the McDonnell scandal have been addressed by the General Assembly, but other issues remain.

Fairfax County Democratic Del. Scott Surovell said there’s still no provision prohibiting public officials from accepting loans with highly generous conditions. Williams gave the McDonnells $120,000 in low-interest loans on favorable repayment terms. The first $50,000 went to Maureen McDonnell, who used it to pay two credit card bills and buy stock in Williams’ company. The rest went to MoBo Real Estate Partners, the money-losing Virginia Beach vacation rental properties owned by Bob McDonnell and his sister.

“If an elected official receives loans on terms that are different than what an ordinary consumer would receive, then I think that ought to be prohibited,” Surovell said.

He said it was also a mistake for the General Assembly to pass an ethics bill that doesn’t give an independent ethics committee the tools, like subpoena power, to investigate potential wrongdoing. Surovell noted that it took a disgruntled former chef at the Executive Mansion to spark a probe into the McDonnells’ conduct.

“We’re still relying on whistleblowers to be our ethics police,” Surovell said.

Other critics said the gift ban is too narrowly tailored to apply only to lobbyists, their clients or anyone with or seeking a state contract. Anna Scholl, executive director of the liberal group ProgressVA, said others who are trying to influence state policy in some way but don’t fall into those categories could still give lawmakers unlimited gifts.

Gilbert said the General Assembly tried to expand the gift ban to people with a “business relationship” with the state but found the language too problematic. Still, Gilbert said critics of the ethics legislation are nitpicking a “very dramatic step forward” in improving the state’s ethics laws and lawmakers were committed to refining the law moving forward.

“We remain open going forward to try and get as close to perfect as possible. With something this complex I don’t think we could ever write a perfect law,” Gilbert said.

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