Virginia ethics reform: Lot of talk, little action

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ALEXANDRIA — If there’s a political bandwagon to hop onto these days in Virginia, it’s ethics reform.

In the wake of the Star Scientific controversy, there’s been a cacophony of calls to amend the state’s gift disclosure laws, and even the old idea of establishing Virginia’s first ethics commission has been resurrected.

With Gov. Bob McDonnell and other Republican leaders shooting down the notion of a special session, despite calls for one from GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli, it looks like any reform would have to wait until January.

That is, if reform happens at all.

“I expect there will be a flurry of proposed amendments to our ethics laws at the end of this year, probably even before the end of the year,” saidJohn McGlennon, chair of the government department at The College of William & Mary. “But I really don’t think we will get a good sense of whether ethics reform will occur and what kind of reform it will be until after the election.”

Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, said part of the hesitation among lawmakers to act immediately is because the issue has to be studied before an effective disclosure law is written.

“Some people have an impulse reaction (to call a special session), he said, “but I would hate to do something and then undo it later because you’re ensnaring 5,800 people that have nothing to do with anything.

“I want to think this thing out before we start making criminals or pariahs of people without justification.”

Marshall suggested amendments to the disclosure law earlier this summer, including a$100 cap on gifts to lawmakers or their family members from individuals with business before the state. He noted that while past proposals have faltered, public pressure has made the issue of reform more prominent of late.

“Time alters things,” he said. “I bet some (legislators) are just hoping to sink past this.”

In recent days, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and state Sen. Mark Herring, the Democraticnominee for attorney general, have presented their own plans on how to amend the disclosure law. Both call for an ethics commission and propose caps on the dollar amount of gifts a lawmaker and family members can receive. For Bolling, that’s $250. For Herring, it’s $100, with no gifts allowed from lobbyists.

Current law requires disclosure of gifts in excess of $50, but there’s no limit on the amount and family members don’t have to disclose theirs.

The ethics commission idea isn’t new. In fact, McDonnell cited it as one of his campaign promises in 2009, along with a state inspector general. Believing the inspector general’s office would accomplish the same goals as a commission, McDonnell later abandoned the proposal.

The idea has become fresh again as candidates from both aisles are clamoring for its establishment, but whether the legislation can make it through the General Assembly is anyone’s guess.

“I think it will be discussed in the Legislature, but it’s harder for me to see that there would be agreement in both houses of a forum that would get something with any kind of bite passed,” said Karen Hult, political science professor at Virginia Tech.

McGlennon said that even with reform pushed to January’s general session, there still may not be enough time to negotiate and pass cohesive ethics legislation.

“I think the biggest obstacle to systematic ethics reform is basically our legislative calendar,” he said. “The legislative session itself is so compressed that it’s difficult for legislators to focus on major structural reform during the session, and it’s easy for those who are not interested in reform to bury proposals.

“I actually think it’s more likely we will get some kind of study commission to review our ethics laws and to propose reforms. So that would push off action to at least the next legislative session (in 2015).”

Marshall said whether reform is proposed in a special session or in the bill churning of January, pratfalls are abound for meaningful legislation.

“If you have a special session to deal with this, you are under the spotlight. And if you say no to something that on the surface looks like you should pass it, but the thinking hasn’t gone into it, you get a black eye in front of the public,” he said. “That maybe a reason that some members hesitate to (call a special session).

“The converse danger is when you are in general session, there are a couple thousand bills and it’s easy to lose sight of this. It becomes easy to bury any real reform. There’s no easy way out of this.”


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