Unwrapping political gifts in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — During the public corruption trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, it became clear that Virginia’s long-standing lax gift giving policies contributed to the corruption.

So, tonight, 10 On Your Side is unwrapping the complexities of political gift giving in Virginia.

One of the jury instructions before their conviction was: “It is acknowledged that Bob McDonnell broke no state laws.”

However, in the end, there was a disconnect between what the federal jury found and what was legal under the lax ethics laws in Virginia. Those ethics laws have now changed, due to the McDonnell case, and they could change more in January.

“I know in my heart that I have not done anything that violates any laws,” McDonnell told WAVY.com in December 2013. “I followed the gift laws and the loan laws.”

But nine months later, 12 jurors knew in their heart that McDonnell did break the law, and in some cases, failed to report the gifts.

“I think the McDonnell trial has raised the level of awareness and the level of concern,” said State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, who is the architect of Senate Bill 649 known as the “Conflicts of Interests Act.”

“I think there is a little bit of an atmosphere in it,” Norment said. “I think what the current McDonnell case has done is brought to the attention of the legislators, maybe just how porous, and how many loop holes there are.”

Before Norment’s bill, tangible gifts — things you can hold, like a Rolex watch — had no limits. But now tangible gifts are capped at $250 per year from any one person. You would not be able to give a Rolex watch under the current law. This also means most of the gifts given to the McDonnells by Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams would now be prohibited.

“You could have given multiple $25 dollar gifts, and not had to report them,” Norment said.

Norment’s bill also increases public disclosures from one time a year to two.

What would not be banned and remains unregulated are the intangible gifts. Those are gifts you can’t hold, like vacations. They are also like Washington Redskin football tickets — gifts that expire. The ticket gift becomes worthless after the game is over.

WAVY.com pointed out to Senator Norment that his bill really doesn’t address these type of gifts, which critics would say remains a loophole.

“I think that is a fair observation,” Norment said.

McDonnell supporter Bill Goodwin, who is Vice Rector of the UVA Board of Visitors, gave the McDonnells a $23,000 trip to Kiawah Island Golf Resort. He was also appointed to the UVA Board by McDonnell. McDonnell did not report the trips because he considered Goodwin a “personal friend,” and gifts from personal friends aren’t required to be reported and remain unlimited.

Norment’s Bill did not close that loophole.

“I would have disclosed the trip, personally,” Norment said. “I know I would have disclosed it personally.”

“We need tighter ethics reform. We need more transparency, because obviously the system hasn’t worked,” Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe told WAVY.com.

Governor McAuliffe doesn’t think Norment’s bill goes far enough. Norment’s response: “I guess I’m just a little frustrated. I can accept constructive criticism, but just to have a wholesale attack on this ethics reform legislation is really an annoyance to me.”

Peggy Kerns, who is Director of the Ethics Center at the National Conference of State Legislatures, does give Virginia credit.

“Virginia made a good first step,” she said. “It’s difficult to turn around a whole culture … Virginia is no longer on the list of states with no regulations. Now there are only nine states on that list.”

To his critics, Senator Norment says: “we spent hundreds of hours getting to this point, and it was a very significant movement  forward for the Commonwealth. Is it exhaustive and all encompassing? Absolutely not. Was it a monumental first step? Yes. Can we improve on it? Yes. Will we improve on it? Yes. Will we ever get it perfect? No.”

McAuliffe said he holds himself, his family, his cabinet members and their families to a $100 gift cap. And he thinks that’s where the General Assembly needs to take state law.

“You shouldn’t be involved in that. You are a public servant. Your job is to serve the public, and you should not open the door to any questions of ethics by people improperly giving you gifts,” Governor McAuliffe said.

McAuliffe will propose even stricter regulations on gifts and trips in the General Assembly in January. WAVY.com asked Norment if that would fly in the General Assembly.

“A total ban? I’m not sure that is realistic,” Norment said.

Norment’s bill also leaves untouched Virginia’s no-limit campaign contributions, as long as they are reported.

Governor McAuliffe told WAVY.com he will introduce what he calls “meaningful ethics legislation.” Expect a proposal capping gifts at $100. Expect to see some proposals on these free trips that are unlimited, with only reporting requirements. Expect proposed changes to unlimited, unreported gifts from “personal friends.”

McAuliffe also refused to fund the Ethics Advisory Council, which is designed to help legislators, because he did not think it wise to fund a council as part of a law that will likely change dramatically in January.

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