- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Lobbyists in Virginia are spending less taking public officials out to eat at high-end restaurants, while lawmakers are more frequently covering the cost of eating out with their virtually unrestricted campaign accounts, according to recent campaign finance and lobbyist spending filings.

The shift is a result of a high-profile gifts scandal that prompted lawmakers to tighten state ethics rules. Revelations that former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family accepted more than $175,000 worth of gifts and loans from a vitamin salesman, including a Rolex watch and designer clothes, led lawmakers to begin put limits on the largess they could legally receive in 2014. McDonnell was convicted on corruption charges that year, but that conviction was recently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Data from the recent lobbyist filings backs up what public officials and others have been saying for a while: Virginia’s political culture has dramatically changed post-McDonnell and the old days when lawmakers could take unlimited gifts from the interests they regulate are long gone.

Energy giant Dominion Resources, for instance, no longer treats lawmakers and others to trips to the Master’s golf tournament, or tickets to Washington Redskins’ games as it used to. Spokesman David Botkins said the company implemented a no gifts or trips policy last year.

“It was more trouble than it was worth,” Botkins said in an email. “The overall ethics law changes were a good thing, and for us eliminating trips/gifts simplifies matters.”

Data collected by the Virginia Public Access Project, nonpartisan money-in-politics tracker, shows that lobbyists are wining and dining lawmakers at less pricey restaurants compared to 2013. For example, lobbyists reported hosting 17 events for public officials at Morton’s steakhouse in 2013, but none during this year’s legislative session. Other high-end restaurants saw similar drop-offs.

Instead lobbyists are holding events with lawmakers at less pricey joints. A possible reason: When lobbyists take public officials out to eat or taking them to sporting events, they have to report those officials by name if the average cost per person exceeded $50. If the average is less than $50, than lobbyists don’t have to report the names of the lawmakers present.

Lawmakers could also be picking up the slack themselves with their campaign accounts, which can be used for practically anything in Virginia. Campaign account spending on meals was up 58 percent during this year’s legislative session compared to 2013, according to VPAP’s data.

Virginia law doesn’t prohibit lawmakers from using their campaign accounts for personal use and The Associated Press reported earlier this year that Virginia’s virtually unregulated campaign finance system is a national outlier.

Behavior that would get lawmakers locked up in other states or at the federal level is perfectly fine in the Old Dominion as Virginia is the only state where lawmakers can raise unlimited campaign donations from anyone, including corporations and unions, and spend the money on themselves.

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