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RICHMOND — Members of the 2014 General Assembly reported accepting more than $260,000 worth of free meals, tickets to football games, overseas trips and other gifts last year, according to legislators’ annual disclosure forms.
The average value of the gifts was $267, down from $467 in 2011, the most recent comparable post-election year. The overall number of gifts increased to 973 from 534 during the same period.
A look at legislators representing the Twin Counties shows that Sen. Bill Carrico (R) ranks sixth among the top recipients of gifts and payments in the Virginia Senate for 2013, according to the Virginia Public Access Project (vpap.org), a nonprofit tracker of money in politics. His district includes Grayson County.
Carrico, of Fries, reported $4,785 in gifts. He ranked 14th-highest among the total 140 members of the General Assembly, and 16th among all elected officials in the state for 2013.
Sen. Bill Stanley (R), who represents the City of Galax and most of Carroll County, was ranked 14th-highest in the Senate, with total gifts of $2,652. Sen. Ralph Smith (R) who represents a small part of Carroll, was near the bottom on the list, with gifts totaling $434.
In the House of Delegates, Del. Israel O’Quinn (R), whose district includes Galax and Grayson County, reported only $183 in gifts for 2013, placing him seventh from the bottom out of all delegates.
Del. Jeff Campbell (R), newly elected in November 2013, was not listed. His district includes Carroll County.
Lawmakers’ annual financial disclosures are a clockwork part of the General Assembly calendar each winter. What’s different this year is that gifts and free travel from corporate donors and special interests are under greater scrutiny amid a gift scandal that’s yielded criminal charges against former Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Fallout from that controversy has legislators scrambling to tighten gift rules even as some critics say the leading proposals wouldn’t go far enough.
The numbers come from an analysis of lawmakers’ annual financial disclosure statements by VPAP, which plans to release its assessment of legislators’ personal wealth, as listed on the disclosure forms, at a later date.
All told, legislators received an all-time high of 973 gifts and trips, worth more than $260,000 combined, according to a VPAP tabulation that does not factor in taxpayer-funded travel costs.
Lawmakers this session are working on bills to tighten state conflict-of-interest rules against the backdrop of a scandal that has McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, facing a 14-count federal felony indictment charging them with public-corruption-related crimes.
Many of the weaknesses in Virginia’s lax gift laws are addressed in compromise legislation cobbled together by House Republicans and Democrats.
That proposal calls for a $250 limit on individual gifts — excluding meals and travel — to public officials and immediate family members, but still would allow unlimited gifts in the aggregate.
It would require financial disclosures twice a year instead of annually, and would synchronize the reporting deadlines for legislators and lobbyists, which are now January and July, respectively.
Another facet of the proposal calls for creation of a State Ethics Advisory Commission to provide guidance, administer new mandatory ethics training for public officials, review disclosures, and recommend policy changes. That commission would not have power to launch investigations — authority now vested in separate House and Senate ethics panels that rarely convene.
Critics of the House compromise approach consider it a feel-good, toothless response to the gaps in Virginia gift laws exposed by the McDonnell scandal.
Current state law doesn’t cap giving and simply requires reporting of gifts worth at least $50. Gifts from personal friends, or those to spouses and family members, don’t have to be reported.
New Gov. Terry McAuliffe has called for tougher gift limits, and through an executive order imposed a $100 annual limit on gifts from any one donor to members of his administration. He’s also forming an Executive Branch Ethics Commission.
Some more stringent gift proposals, such as one from Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico County), to ban any single gift worth more than $50 or several from one donor worth more than $100, has been tabled.
There is a chance, though, that it could be revived in the Senate, after Democrats forcibly retook control of the legislature’s upper chamber from Republicans.
Lawmakers trying to tighten Virginia’s ethics rules
Lawmakers are continuing the work of trying to tighten the state’s ethics rules for public officials.
During a meeting that stretched longer than three hours, the newly minted House Ethics Subcommittee started parsing through the 36-page reform package unveiled by a bipartisan panel of legislators earlier this month.
The committee’s inaugural work session came on the heels of a scathing analysis from a progressive political group that said the proposal doesn’t do enough to stem the flow of inappropriate gifts to public officials.
The committee began touching on some of the legislation’s loopholes, but it’s unlikely it will close them altogether, said Anna Scholl, executive director of the group, ProgressVA. To do that, the reform would have to include travel and entertainment gifts in the ban, Scholl said.
“You are here to serve the public, not for the free perks,” she said. “If that’s what you’re interested in, you should be in another line of business.”
The current reform package places a $250 cap on individual gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and some other public officials, but excludes intangible gifts such as trips and meals. It also increases disclosure requirements, includes officials’ immediate family members in the gift limit, mandates ethics training and creates an ethics council.
The committee made minor tweaks to the package last week, including extending the training requirement to all public officials, from the local government level to the executive mansion.
It also addressed one of ProgressVA’s concerns by broadening the prohibition on gifts from lobbyists to include their employers and others with business before the state. Very few gifts come directly from individual lobbyists, according to an analysis by the group.
It won’t be possible to address every possible loophole, said Del. Todd Gilbert, a Shenandoah County Republican who’s sponsoring the reform package under HB1211.
“We want to take this as far as possible, but I think we should not be under the impression that we can fix every scenario under the sun,” he said. “I think we should fix as much of this as we can.”
The subcommittee also must vet roughly 18 other bills dealing with ethics reform. One would prohibit organizations seeking a grant from the Governor’s Development Opportunity Fund from giving gifts or donations to the governor. Another would place a cap on how much the Attorney General’s Office can pay outside legal counsel.
Many of the proposals were “inspired by conduct that we were made aware of over the last 12 months,” said Del. Scott Surovell, a Fairfax County Democrat who proposed several of the bills.