Va. ethics bill aims to cap gifts to state lawmakers

WASHINGTON — The ethics bill adopted Friday night by Virginia’s General Assembly to respond to the convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen lacks some restrictions that Maryland and the District impose.

The bill, now on the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, would cap single gifts from lobbyists or anyone with a contract or potential contract with the state at $100 each, and some donated travel costs would need to be approved in advance by a nine-member ethics council.

That council can offer opinions to state and local employees or lawmakers about whether some gift or trip might be legal. Maryland has a similar advisory opinion option.

In Maryland, officials and state employees are banned from soliciting any gift for themselves or others, but there are exceptions. They are not allowed to knowingly accept any gift from someone who is doing business with their agency or department, from someone involved in something regulated by their agency or department, from someone with financial interests that could be substantially impacted by them or their agency, or from someone who is a lobbyist on matters related to their official jurisdiction.

They can accept some food and drinks from such people, as long as the meal is consumed in the presence of the person giving it, but members of the General Assembly are generally only able to use this exception for a meal paid for by a lobbyist if the body is not in session. There is a separate exception for Maryland’s constitutional officers that allows them to accept free tickets to events, as long as they are provided by the person putting on the event, such as the owner of a sports team.

Virginia’s new limits would restrict the sports tickets if the tickets are worth more than $100 and are from a lobbyist or someone with a state contract or one pending. Virginia’s bill would allow officials to accept tickets as long as they pay the difference between the actual value and the $100 limit.

In Maryland, some gifts are allowed if they are of “nominal” value, but there is a $20 cap on unsolicited gifts from lobbyists to state officials in the executive or legislative branch. As in Virginia, there are exceptions to the rules for gifts from relatives.

The D.C. Council passed an ethics overhaul in 2011 that bans any official or staff member in the legislative or executive branch from accepting any gifts or services from lobbyists totaling more than $100 in a calendar year. That is a stricter standard than the Virginia bill, which caps individual gifts at $100, but not the total.

Registered lobbyists in D.C. must disclose any gifts or donations they give of $50 or more.

The Virginia bill does not change any campaign finance rules, which allow any contributions as long as they are disclosed.

The bill does require that all Virginia personal financial disclosures be filed and made available to the public online within six weeks after the filing deadline.

In the past, Virginia has received ‘F’ grades from ethics and open-government advocates.

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