- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A Virginia ethics panel struggled Tuesday to decide whether state officials should be able to accept tickets to sporting events under the state’s new ethics rules after a high ranking member of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration watched a Washington Redskins playoff game for free from one of the team’s luxury boxes earlier this year.

The Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council grappled with the issue Tuesday, but put off making a decision until its next meeting.

Ethics council staff members say tickets to sporting events would generally be exempt from the $100 cap on gifts because they qualify as “widely attended” events.

But Republican Del. Todd Gilbert, a member of the council, questioned whether lawmakers intended for the exemption to be applied so broadly and asked the staff to draft proposals to fix the problem.

“If there are gaps in the law that might allow someone to do something that they were never intended to do - to be entertained to that degree - then we certainly have every intention of fixing that,” Gilbert told reporters.

The issue was recently thrust into the spotlight after Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones accepted an invitation from the Washington Redskins to watch a playoff game from one of the team’s luxury boxes in January. The ethics council gave Jones approval to accept the invitation, the administration said.

Lawmakers explicitly said when approving the $100 gift cap in 2015 that the “widely attended” gifts exemption would not include tickets to high-dollar sporting events that lawmakers had previously accepted in the past. Those gifts have included tickets to luxury suites at Washington Redskins games or trips to the Masters golf tournament.

Instead, lawmakers said the “widely attended” exemption was meant for civic events, like Rotary Club dinners or NAACP banquets.

Christopher Piper, the executive director of the ethics council, also announced Tuesday that he’s stepping down after he was told that lawmakers wouldn’t confirm his hiring. Piper, a former employee of the Virginia State Board of Elections, will become deputy director of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, he said.

Gilbert said Republican leadership wants to replace Piper because he’s not an attorney.


Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer

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