March 3, 2014 •
Ethics Reform in Virginia
Virginia’s lack of gift laws has been thrown into the spotlight recently with the federal indictment of former Gov. Bob McDonnell. McDonnell became embroiled in scandal after accepting gifts worth thousands of dollars from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. While state law required all gifts of more than $50 to be disclosed, there was no limit on what a public official could accept from any donor. Williams also gave gifts to McDonnell’s wife and daughters; these gifts went undisclosed because state law does not require gifts to officials’ family members to be disclosed.
The national attention on Virginia has turned the tide in favor of ethics reform. Several ethics bills filed before the session convened on January 8 have now been incorporated into Senate Bill 649. This comprehensive bill prohibits gifts of more than $250 from lobbyists, requires reporting of gifts to immediate family members, changes lobbyist reporting from annual to semiannual, and establishes the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, a newly created legislative agency tasked with facilitating compliance with the state’s ethics laws. The bill passed the Senate on February 10 and the House of Delegates with a substitution and amendments on February 26, but the Senate rejected the House’s amended bill on February 28.
While it remains to be seen whether the General Assembly will pass ethics reform before it adjourns on March 8, newly sworn-in Gov. Terry McAuliffe took swift action to ensure his administration would not face the same ethical issues as McDonnell’s had. On his first day as governor, McAuliffe signed Executive Order 2, which prohibits the acceptance of gifts in the executive branch exceeding $100 per calendar year. The order became effective immediately upon his signature. Gifts from lobbyists and principals are now restricted to $25. The order does allow for some exceptions, such as excluding items of $25 or less from the definition of gift. It also allows the receipt of certain items while engaging in an activity serving a legitimate public purpose, such as food and refreshments served at certain events.
State and Federal Communications, Inc. provides research and consulting services for government relations professionals on lobbying laws, procurement lobbying laws, political contribution laws in the United States and Canada. Learn more by visiting stateandfed.com.