FOCUS ON FOIA
Dick Hammerstrom, a local news editor at The Free Lance-Star, is an advocate for open government and serves on several statewide organizations that urge transparency.
Tracking gifts to legislators
Gifts to politicians have dominated much of the political coverage in Virginia this summer.
Those gifts led to a federal investigation into thousands of dollars Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family received from a business executive and the embarrassing $18,000 in gifts attorney general Ken Cuccinelli received from the same man.
In some states, any kind of gift would be a crime, but in Virginia, it’s considered acceptable as long as the gift is disclosed. State laws also do not require disclosure of gifts given to family members and disclosure requirements are generally considered weak.
Lobbyists must file reports on its gifts, but the requirements are vague and lack specifics. That’s why most members of the General Assembly receive gifts large and small from corporations regulated by the state and from lobbyists seemingly trying to influence legislation.
Some of the presents could actually help legislators in their lawmaking role, but others have absolutely nothing to do with the public’s business.
Want to see what kind of gifts your local legislator is receiving?
You can find this data from the Virginia Public Access Project, an online compilation of politics and money founded more than 15 years ago by David Poole, a friend and former colleague.
For example, you’ll see that Del. Mark Cole of Spotsylvania was given $1,000 to attend conferences of the Southern Regional Educational Board, which should help him make legislative decisions.
But I wonder about the legislative knowledge he gained from the $500 he received from Dominion Power for tickets and meals at Washington Redskins games. Or the $120 in tickets to Kings Dominion. Mark, did you ride the Intimidator?
Redskins’ tickets are popular. Del. Mark Dudenhefer of Stafford took in a complimentary Washington football game.
But none of the legislators topped Gov. McDonnell, who received $19,000 worth of tickets to ‘Skins games last year.
House Speaker Bill Howell of Stafford apparently prefers baseball, taking in a Washington Nationals game along with six others last year, paid for by four corporations.
Del. Ed Scott of Orange garnered freebie tickets to a Dave Matthews Band concert, compliments of Meadwestvaco, along with a Virginia Tech football game and a UVa. basketball game.
Sen. Richard Stuart of Stafford and Del. Bobby Orrock of Caroline got tickets to the Ringling Brothers Circus, courtesy of Feld Enertainment.
Sen. Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania went on a economic trade mission to Taipei, paid for by the Taipei Economic & Cultural Rep Office, and attended conferences on educational reform and energy.
These certainly sound reasonable, but it’s his complimentary trip—paid for by Dominion Power—to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga. that made me more than a bit envious. I’ve always wanted see that first-hand.
Reeves was joined by Sen. Ryan McDougle, who must be quite a golf nut. He also was given complimentary golf trips to Pinehurst in North Carolina and to the Thanksgiving Point Golf Course in Lehi, Utah.
McDougle’s golfing road trips inspires me to seek a legislative change to the state’s Freedom of Information Act: If a politician plays a complimentary round of golf, his score card should be a matter of public record, subject to FOIA.
And no mulligans can be permitted.
Interested in gift disclosure laws in other states? Check out the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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