Gov. McAuliffe opens political gift debate

VIRGINIA (WAVY) — As the public corruption trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell moves forward, only 10 On Your Side spoke with Governor Terry McAuliffe about conflicts of interest and gifts received while in office.

McDonnell and his wife are accused of trading the prestige of the Governor’s Office for personal gain in the form of lavish gifts from wealthy businessman, Jonnie Williams, who was trying to promote his line of dietary supplements. The McDonnells deny the charges.

And McAuliffe, like everyone else, is watching the historic trial unfold — never before has a Virginia governor been indicted for performance in office. He spoke with WAVY.com one-on-one about the political climate that created the environment which has snared McDonnell.

When McAuliffe was running for Governor, he had what is called a “slam dunk” campaign issue. He was running while news was breaking that then Governor McDonnell and his wife were under state and federal investigation for political corruption. McAuliffe had himself an issue that could become one of his political legacies.

So WAVY.com asked McAuliffe what he’s learned from the McDonnell corruption trial.

“We need ethics reform in the Commonwealth,” he said. “Obviously there are too many gifts, and too much money involved.”

That’s why McAuliffe’s first act as Governor was to limit to $100 any gift he, his family, his administration, and their families can receive from people who may try to influence them.

“Nobody can get a gift over $100 dollars. I think that is the right standard,” McAuliffe said. “You talk to folks in my administration, they are just so happy they can’t take anything, which is great. It just takes the burden off everybody.”

There was a time when legislators could get gifts of any value, and disclose them only once a year. Following the McDonnell scandal, the reporting of gifts is now two times a year. Tangible gifts, ones you can touch, like Rolex watches, cannot be greater in value than $250 — total, for all gifts in a year from any one person.

Governor McAuliffe said even that’s not good enough.

“I would like to see the legislators get close to where I am with a $100 dollar gift ban. It takes everything away. You know, give me a baseball cap, and a t-shirt at a ball game, but that’s about it, and that’s the way it should be,” he said. “It should be nothing that can impact your decision making.”

Intangible gifts remain unlimited for state political leaders. Those are gifts like trips, entertainment, transportation, lodging, and meals, but they must be reported and disclosed two times a year. Critics argue the General Assembly couldn’t go the full measure to clean up the potential for political influence.

Former Governor Tim Kaine’s name has been brought up in the McDonnell trial. He received an $18,000 trip to the Caribbean from a wealthy donor. He reported it, but the question is, should politicians get these type of free-bees from people who obviously want something?

Kaine is now a U.S. Senator, where the rules are stricter.

“Someone under trial is going to say what they want to say,” Kaine told WAVY.com. “They had talked about what previous governors had done. I feel very, very good about how we complied with state laws … I do think the ethical laws in Virginia are way to lax, and I have encouraged Gov. McAuliffe to make this a great legacy to put on the table, which is a very strong ethics package.”

The Governor wouldn’t go into details, but when McAuliffe said, “I would like to see the legislators get close to where I am,” that is an indication that he will likely propose related legislation. That legislation would likely include a further cap on personal gifts to governors and cap unlimited non-tangible gifts for all members of the General Assembly.

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