The recommendations adopted by the commission today are a welcome step toward a long-overdue strengthening of ethics enforcement in the Commonwealth. We’re particularly pleased with the proposal for creation of an Ethics Review Commission, with authority to initiate and conduct investigations of malfeasance, disclosure and ethics complaints and to impose civil penalties where appropriate.
The commission has covered a lot of ground in a very short time, and while these recommendations are a good start, they are only a start. We urge the governor and the General Assembly to solicit additional public input as they draft legislation to implement the commission’s proposals. In that vein, we believe the commission’s work would be strengthened by:
- Language requiring that at least one of the governor’s appointees to the Ethics Review Commission be unaffiliated with either major political party.
- A ban on reimbursements from third-parties for travel expenses by members of the General Assembly and all state officials on official business. If travel is related to official duties, the state or locality should bear the expense. Alternatively, reimbursements should be limited to a per diem set by the Ethics Review Commission.
- If third-party reimbursements are permitted, the commission’s proposed exemption to the gift limit for travel to “widely attended events” should be narrowed. The commission’s proposed language would appear to cover reimbursements for attendance at American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meetings, other “seminars” hosted by interest groups or industries, as well as attendance by members of the General Assembly at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the World Series, the Super Bowl and a host of other events.
- Language specifying that the $250 limit on gifts during a calendar year is $250 per legislator, not $250 per giver. Absent that, a senator or delegate might legally receive 10 or 20 gifts of $249 each from individuals interested in a particular legislative proposal.
- Tightening the proposal on conflicts of interest. If the current definition of “personal interest” applies, it appears that a Board of Health or university board member – to use just two examples -- with a varied portfolio of investments might be able legally to influence multiple decisions benefitting his or her interests, so long as no single decision produced a benefit of more than $5,000.
- Improved disclosure requirements so that gifts made during sessions of the General Assembly and in the weeks immediately preceding and following it are disclosed immediately.
- A two-year waiting period on lobbying activities by ex-legislators and officials. At least eight states have a two-year “cooling off” period, and Virginia should extend its one-year ban to at least two years.
Common Cause commends the commission for its work and Gov. McAuliffe for recognizing the importance of ethics reform. We appreciate the commission's willingness to consider our proposals in the areas it already has covered and in its ongoing work on redistricting reform and campaign finance.
Common Cause is a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. We work to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process.
Office: Common Cause National
Tags: State Ethics