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Proposed ethics legislation

Proposed by Fairfax Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Dist. 34):

• Senate Bill 212 - Removes a provision that exempts members of the General Assembly and their staff from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The exemption was passed in the 2013 session.

• SB218 - Limits gifts to $2,000 per individual, per year, with all gifts over $50 itemized and disclosed. Campaign contributions limited to $20,000 per individual per candidate in a campaign cycle and $50,000 from a political action committee.

• SB219 - Establishment of the Virginia Ethics Commission. Reports on loans, gifts and statements of economic interest would be filed with the commission, and the commission would have the ability to discipline lawmakers who violate ethics rules. The commission could also serve as a resource for lawmakers who have questions about the legality of a gift.

• SB220 - Prohibiting the use of private law firms for state business. The attorney general’s office could contract with city or county attorneys when outside counsel is needed.

Proposed by Mount Vernon Del. Scott Surovell (D-Dist. 44):

• House Bill 245 - Prohibits the governor from having financial ties with any appointed secretary or agency head.

• HB246 - The governor and attorney general cannot give gifts over $50 to companies or individuals in litigation with the state, and those individuals are prohibited from giving such gifts.

• HB247 - Prohibits the governor, his campaign committee or any associated political action committees from soliciting or accepting contributions or gifts greater than $50 from corporations seeking loans or grants from the Governor’s Development Opportunity Fund.

• HB248 - Caps attorney’s fees for outside counsel at $1,235.

• HB252 - Prohibits elected officials at all levels of government from using public assets, including staff and office resources, for private or personal reasons.

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) grabbed headlines in 2013 for gifts he and his family received from a family friend and CEO of a health supplement company that was being sued by the state.

Now, lawmakers from both parties are proposing changes to Virginia’s ethics rules for elected officials.

Leaders in the House of Delegates announced Tuesday that they will introduce a package of legislation limiting gifts, updating disclosure requirements and creating a state ethics commission.

Their proposal would cap the value of “tangible gifts” from lobbyists and individuals with business before the state at $250. Food and travel would be exempted from the cap but lawmakers would have to disclose the gifts.

The updated disclosure requirements would include reporting of gifts to immediate family members — something that came up in the McDonnell case because his wife was the recipient of large gifts from now former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams.

The proposed legislation will also clarify the definition of a “personal friend,” for purposes of gift-giving.

“We hope the changes outlined today will help restore any public trust lost due to recent events,” House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Dist. 66), of Colonial Heights, and House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Dist. 57), of Charlottesville, said in a joint statement. “The citizens of the Commonwealth must know without hesitation or qualification that their elected leaders can be trusted to execute their duties with the highest degree of integrity and virtue.”

However, two local legislators who are backing their own ethics proposals say Cox’s and Toscano’s proposal doesn’t go far enough.

“The proposal they have made, in my view, is the starting point of the discussion,” said Del. Scott Surovell (D-Dist. 44), who represents the Mount Vernon area.

One concern for Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Dist. 34) of Fairfax is that the House proposal specifically exempts travel.

“Travel is probably one of the more lucrative gifts you can get as a lawmaker,” Petersen said.

His proposal takes a different approach, capping total gifts from one individual to a member of the General Assembly or the executive branch at $2,000 for the year, including meals and travel, with any individual item valued at over $50 still requiring disclosure.

Petersen’s bill also includes the more radical step of placing limits on campaign contributions. Virginia currently has no limits.

His proposed limit is $20,000 from an individual over the course of a campaign cycle and $50,000 from a political action committee.

Petersen said he believes the lack of limits on campaign donations are part of the problem. “It lends itself to an aura of corruption,” he said.

Surovell’s proposals aren’t as sweeping. He said he tried to tackle loopholes identified by the Star Scientific scandal “that have been less discussed.”

For example, he is proposing that the governor not be allowed to have private financial dealings with his appointees. McDonnell rented his house to the state health commissioner, according to media reports.

Surovell said the governor “shouldn’t be considering whether or not he can pay his mortgage” when evaluating the performance of an appointee.

Both Petersen and Surovell also have proposals that would restrict the use of private attorneys to defend elected officials. The bill for McDonnell’s legal expenses has reportedly reached hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the lawmakers, because Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) was deemed to have a conflict of interest in the case due to his own dealings with Williams and hired outside counsel.

“I don’t think the attorney general should be given a blank check to pay for gold plated legal representation,” Surovell said.

He proposes capping outside attorney fees at $1,235, the same amount the state would pay a public defender to represent an indigent client in a felony criminal case.

Petersen’s bill would require the attorney general’s office to contract with city or county attorneys, rather than a private law firm, when there is a conflict of interest.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com