New ethics rules to be taken up Wednesday

WASHINGTON — New ethics rules tied to former Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell’s corruption conviction will be taken up Wednesday in Richmond, as some critics of a bill to change Dominion Power rate rules separately raise questions about the General Assembly’s own conflict-of-interest rules.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and two others voted for a bill that would loosen state oversight over Dominion-owned stock in the utility company at the time of a committee vote. Wagner said Tuesday that he has now sold his shares in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

The proposal to freeze base rates while giving the company the right to control additional surcharges was approved in the committee by a bipartisan 14-1 vote.

The attorney general’s office, environmental groups and some other groups say the bill would hurt consumers.

Supporters say the bill could stabilize rates and keep several coal-fired power plants open.

Both Senate and House rules say a lawmaker who has a “personal interest” will not vote or participate in any way in a bill in committee or on the Senate floor. But “personal interest” is defined in Virginia law as ownership or an option for ownership of three percent or more of a business’s total equity, or income from the business or property worth more than $5,000 per year. And personal interest in a transaction is additionally defined as an officer, employee or member of his immediate family having a personal interest in the subject of the bill that is substantially different from the general public.

Dominion Resources is one of Virginia’s biggest lobbyists, and with a market capitalization well over $45 billion, only a billionaire could own three percent of the company.

On the Senate floor, a recusal is noted as “Rule 36”, while on the House of Delegates side of the Capitol, the similar restrictions are noted as “Rule 69”. Both bodies have a button to reflect a recusal at each desk, right next to the buttons for a yes or no vote.

The main ethics issues during this year’s session focus on the fallout from former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s arrest and conviction.

A House of Delegates subcommittee is scheduled to take up the latest round of changes Wednesday morning.

It appears that plans to cut the maximum value of gifts to lawmakers to $100, and to include new limits on so-called “intangible gifts” enjoy broad support in Richmond, but a proposal from Gov. Terry McAuliffe for an ethics commission that could investigate violations and refer them for prosecutions is causing more controversy.

A competing proposal from Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, would create an advisory commission that would have less power.

The Senate is also working on its own ethics reform plan, although the broad outlines of the debate are similar.

McDonnell was sentenced last month to two years in prison for trading the prestige of the governor’s office for more than $150,000 in gifts and loans, but an appeals court has since ruled that he will not have to report to jail before his appeal is heard this spring.

McDonnell’s wife Maureen was also convicted at their trial this summer. She is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 20.

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