Virginia legislators disclose gifts

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By Brian Funk, Editor

General Assembly members reported accepting $222,937 in freebies last year, according to statements of economic interest filed by legislators in January.

Virginia law allows politicians to receive gifts intended for their personal benefit, and does not limit the amount they can accept from special interests. The state requires only that any expenditure of $50 or more be reported.

Lawmakers representing the Twin Counties accepted gifts in 2008 ranging from $53 for a single dinner to nearly $4,800 in dinners, speaker fees and NCAA tournament tickets.

Lawmakers turned in their annual disclosure statements in January. A computer analysis of the disclosures was released this week by the Virginia Public Access Project, a non-profit that runs databases detailing campaign and lobbying finances.

Sen. Roscoe Reynolds (D-Henry County) barely met the minimum requirement, listing only one $53 dinner, courtesy of Richmond law firm Hunton & Williams. Reynolds ranked 129th out of the 140 legislators listed.

Del. Bill Carrico (R-Fries) ranked 104th, listed gifts totaling $302 — three dinners from Richmond-based Altria, tobacco company Phillip Morris' corporate parent, ($119); the Virginia Sheriff’s Association ($104) and Old Dominion Highway Contractors Association ($79).

Del. Ward Armstrong (D-Henry County) accepted $4,795 in gifts, which put him at 19th among all state legislators. He listed a dinner from the Virginia Auto Dealers Association ($131), a hotel room courtesy of the Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association ($293), conference travel expenses paid by the State Government Affairs Council ($674), University of Virginia football game tickets totaling $752, speaker’s fee and registration fees covered by the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association ($1,957) and a total of $988 in gifts from Altria.

The tobacco company’s gifts to Armstrong included $616 for two dinners, $304 in NCAA tournament tickets and $68 for refreshments at the tournament.

Even Armstrong’s perks paled in comparison with the most-gifted member of the General Assembly.

Sen. Yvonne Miller (D-Norfolk) led all 140 legislators by reporting $8,599 of goodies. She attended two seminars outside Virginia on the tab of special interests and reported getting $600 in basketball and football tickets and souvenirs, $400 in passes to baseball games and $950 in lodging and tickets at Colonial Williamsburg.

In addition to the gifts from special interests, Miller ran up $8,903 in travel at the expense of taxpayers — also the top figure in the General Assembly.

Gifts are distinct from campaign donations — gifts personally benefit a public official. Legislators file their statements with the House and Senate clerks and the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general file with the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

All told, special interests last year treated legislators to $118,357 in travel and accommodations at conferences, $60,265 in meals, $18,987 in tickets to sporting events, $7,450 in speaking fees, $4,322 in theater passes, $2,850 in gifts, and $1,845 in theme-park tickets.

Other state legislators went on expensive hunting trips in the U.S. and traveled to Taiwan, Israel and Norway on the dime of special interest groups that lobby for lawmakers’ support on issues beneficial to them.

Many of these trips are what legislators describe as “fact-finding” missions to learn about things that they feel could benefit Virginia. Others are purely perks.

State senators make $18,000 a year and receive a $169 per-diem. The salary for a delegate is $17,640 a year with a $135 per-diem.

Also, most legislators have jobs in the private sector in addition to their state salaries.

Landmark News Service contributed to this report.