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Proposed state ethics law won’t stop the gifts

RICHMOND—State legislators last year accepted about $260,000 worth of travel, meals and gifts from lobbyists and other groups, even as they planned legislation limiting gifts and enhancing disclosure.

Lawmakers’ annual statements of economic interests, on which they’re supposed to list the gifts they were given over the year, were posted online Tuesday by the Virginia Public Access Project.

For much of last year, former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s acceptance of lavish gifts from one donor was in the news, and legislators were saying the McDonnell case indicated the need to tighten gift rules for elected officials.

At the same time, some were accepting overseas travel—for example, one Southwest Virginia delegate went on a $9,800 “fact-finding mission” to Israel—football tickets, concert tickets, meals, wine-tastings, trips to national legislative conferences and more.

Current Virginia law allows elected officials to accept any gift, as long as they report those worth more than $50 every January.

Proposed changes would limit them to gifts worth less than $250, and require reporting twice a year. But that limit would apply only to “tangible items”—not to travel, which is usually the priciest of gifts, nor to food, nor to entertainment tickets.

So Del. Patrick Hope’s five “elite VIP tour” tickets to Busch Gardens from SeaWorld Parks would still be allowed. So would Del. Will Morefield’s $9,800 “fact-finding mission to Israel” from the American Israel Education Foundation.

And Sens. Ryan McDougle’s and Brice Reeves’ $3,776 trips to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., from Dominion. Reeves, of Spotsylvania, reported his $3,776 “trip” from Dominion. He doesn’t list when or where, but Dominion reported taking him to the Masters golf tournament. McDougle has a similar listing on his report.

The trip put the two of them at the top of VPAP’s list of lawmakers who reported going to sporting events.

The disclosures would be required twice a year instead of once under the proposed bill. The current ethics bills don’t seem to require greater level of detail in the disclosures, although they do empower an ethics advisory council to review disclosure statements and ask for additional information. Currently, several lawmakers have simply reported a “trip,” without saying anything else about what it was for, where it was to, or when it happened. For example, Del. Barry Knight reports a $6,080 “trip” from the Virginia Public Safety Alliance, with no other information.

While many bills were filed to limit gifts or require greater disclosure, both houses have winnowed those down to an omnibus bill on both sides.

Those bills create an ethics advisory council, put the $250 limit on tangible gifts, require more frequent disclosure and require disclosure of gifts to an officeholder’s immediate family.

The $250 limit is per gift. The limit doesn’t bar lawmakers from taking more than one $249 gift from a single lobbyist.

The ethics bills are making their way through both houses.

Overall, VPAP said, the average value of 2013’s gifts—$267—was lower than the 2011 average of $467. But the number of gifts was higher.

House Speaker Bill Howell of Stafford, received the second-highest amount of gifts, in dollars—$11,095.

Most of the gifts he reported were trips to national legislative conferences, paid for by those groups. The Republican Legislative Campaign Committee paid $2,593 for Howell to attend its annual conference, although it doesn’t list where or when that was. The State Legislative Leaders Foundation is listed as giving Howell $2,660, mostly for its annual speakers conference, but also $536 for an iPad, iPad cover and a duffel bag.

Altria paid for transportation and meals for Howell and his wife, Cessie, at a national speakers conference, as well as $119 Napa wine-tastings for both of them.

Other Fredericksburg-area lawmakers reported fewer gifts. Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, listed $356 in gifts total—$219 of it was for a health wellness screening.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R–Caroline, listed $214, including one dinner from the Virginia Association of Broadcasters.

Overall, according to VPAP’s compilation of the reports, Dominion gave lawmakers the most gifts, measured by dollars, ringing up about $30,000 worth of trips, golf tournaments, Redskins tickets and dinners.

The Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association was next, giving out $15,443 worth of gifts, mostly as $202 “gift boxes” to legislators.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245

cdavis@freelancestar.com

 

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