New Va. ethics debates as McDonnell corruption case heads to Supreme Court

WASHINGTON — As former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s corruption appeal goes to the U.S. Supreme Court next week, Virginia lawmakers are still dealing with the fallout from his 2014 conviction, and with debates over changes to ethics rules.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed amendments to this year’s ethics bill but they were rejected in the Senate during Wednesday’s one-day veto session. The changes would have reduced the total for reporting food and drink expenses and prevented lobbyists from splitting checks among multiple clients to get around the disclosure of larger dinners or gifts.

Until McDonnell was charged just after leaving office, Virginia had essentially allowed state and local officials to accept any gifts as long as gifts from anyone other than a “personal friend” were reported on state disclosure forms.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, who has spoken out against many of the new gift limits and reporting changes, argued Wednesday that this year’s existing bill language, exempting gifts worth less than $20 from tracking and putting a $100 gift cap for lawmakers is designed “to try to minimize the administrative aggravation of trying to track every Big Mac.”

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County, argued for the suggested change.

“Trying to make sure that if someone receives a gift of $100, whether it’s done by one entity or two, three, four or five, it would have to be reported,” Barker says.

Norment called a proposed change to a different part of the bill, one that would have required lawmakers to post opinions giving them waivers from the gift rules during travel for conferences, a potentially “gotcha” change, since it could disclose conventions or conferences that lawmakers go to.

The Senate rejected McAuliffe’s proposed amendments by a vote of 24 to 14, sending the original bill passed in March back to his desk.

None of Virginia’s ethics changes over the last three legislative sessions have affected the state’s campaign finance system, which allows unlimited donations and places few limits on spending.

McDonnell’s corruption appeal will be heard by the eight justices of the Supreme Court on Wednesday morning, April 27.

McDonnell argues that he never specifically promised Jonnie Williams any official action in exchange for more than $170,000 in gifts, loans and trips.

Prosecutors say the corrupt agreement was clear.

The same arguments have been made at each level of the court process.

A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond unanimously upheld McDonnell’s conviction last year, and the full appeals court declined to rehear the case.

Just before McDonnell could have been forced to report to prison to begin a two-year sentence, the Supreme Court stepped in to put the prison time on hold.

A decision from the high court is expected by the end of June.

McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, was also convicted during their six-week trial in 2014. Her appeal to a Fourth Circuit panel is on hold, pending the Supreme Court decision in her husband’s case.

The trial judge sentenced Maureen McDonnell to one year and one day in prison. She also has been free as the appeals process proceeds.

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