Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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January 7, 2014

Va. lawmakers propose limits on personal gifts

RICHMOND, Va. — A bipartisan group of Virginia House delegates wants to place a $250 limit on gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists and others who do business with the commonwealth while also creating a new commission to advise and train elected officials about ethics laws.

The proposals, lawmakers said at a news conference Tuesday, are needed to help repair the state’s image following a gift scandal involving outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The governor came under state and federal investigation after he and his family accepted thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. McDonnell has apologized for his actions but has denied breaking any laws. He has not been charged with a crime. 

House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said he was approached several months ago by House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, to begin working on an ethics reform bill.   

“We Democrats felt that this was one area where we could join together with Republicans and come forth with some proposals that are going to help restore some of the faith that’s been lost, frankly, among the public in their elected officials,” Toscano said.

The General Assembly is set to convene Wednesday, with ethics reform likely to be a key issue during the 2014 session.

House lawmakers said Tuesday that Virginia’s laws allowing limitless giving to lawmakers are insufficient.

“Under current law, a lobbyist could give you a car,” said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who was part of a bipartisan group of delegates that helped craft the proposals.

The $250 gift limit would not apply to travel, food, or other items routinely given in association with a lawmaker’s official duties.

The House proposals would also establish a new ethics commission tasked with posting financial disclosure forms online, advising elected officials on conflict of interest matters, and offering ethics training. As envisioned by the current plan, the commission would be advisory in nature and not have the ability to conduct investigations or issue subpoenas.

Cox said the cost of creating a new body would be “fairly minimal.”

The proposals also are also aimed at increasing transparency, lawmakers said. The House plan would require lobbyists and lawmakers to file financial disclosure forms twice a year, instead of once.

And all elected officials would also be required to undergo “intensive” and “mandatory” ethics training, according to a distributed summary of the House proposals.

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe plans on signing an executive order when he is sworn-in on Saturday placing a $100 gift limit on himself, his family and members of his administration, according to his spokesman Brian Coy.

“He feels this is important to beginning an administration based on transparency and accountability,” said Coy, who added that McAuliffe is “encouraged” by the House proposals.


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