Post McDonnell, Va. Republicans call to set higher bar for public officials

WASHINGTON – Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s corruption convictions are spurring calls for changes to the commonwealth’s gift rules from members of McDonnell’s own party.

House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, both Republicans, say in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed that Virginia’s reputation has been tainted, and confidence in the state government has been unacceptably shaken.

“The events of the past 18 months have been a painful ordeal for all who care about Virginia,” they write.

The Republican leaders say stronger ethics reforms are now clearly needed, and will be introduced in this coming winter’s General Assembly session.

“With last Thursday’s verdict, the need to restore the public’s confidence has increased exponentially. Although the reforms enacted earlier this year were meaningful and substantive, and were approved without a single dissenting vote in both chambers and in both parties, they are no longer sufficient in meeting the expectations of the people of Virginia. A higher standard having been set, we must meet it,” they write.

The ethics reforms passed during the 2014 session did not restrict “intangible” gifts like meals or travel. However lawmakers agreed to a $250 cap on some types of gifts they can receive and tightened the disclosure requirements to require the identity of a public official’s individual creditors.

Howell and Norment say they will reexamine every aspect of ethics, transparency and disclosure, including loopholes.

“It is also imperative that our actions do not discourage public service or simply drive bad behavior into dark corners. Like all legislation, there is a balance to be found in the specific proposals that will eventually emerge. But, that balance must tilt decisively toward the people of Virginia and ensuring their trust,” they write.

Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, issued a statement immediately following the convictions of Bob and Maureen McDonnell calling on the General Assembly to adopt a ban on any gifts worth $25 or more. Herring and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat, imposed their own gift bans on themselves, their families and their staffs when they took office in January.

“Virginia has needed real ethics reform for years, and if there was ever any doubt about it, the verdict should send a strong message that this is what Virginians want and need,” Herring said in an interview Tuesday.

“I think the legislature needs to have an ethics commission that has some real teeth to it and has some investigatory powers. I think they need to do away with this distinction between tangible and intangible gifts and put a much lower limit,” he added.

But last week, Del. Dave Albo, R-Fairfax, signaled that there could be another fight over just how large the changes should be.

“I’m opposed to people getting gifts in exchange for government service,” Albo told WTOP. “But I go to the Rotary Club, and they pay for my breakfast. I go to the civic association awards ceremony, they pay for my dinner. If you banned all gifts, we couldn’t do anything.”

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