Last year, the House wrote and passed legislation to significantly strengthen our ethics laws. We created an independent commission to review and advise members and the public on ethics laws, required mandatory training for elected officials, required all disclosure forms to be posted online, increased the frequency of filing and required legislators to report gifts to family members.
This year, we built on that work by creating a $100 hard gift cap, requiring legislators to have travel pre-approved by an independent commission, and prohibit the Governor from accepting campaign contributions from businesses that are seeking money from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund.
These are meaningful steps that will improve transparency, hold elected officials more accountable, and hopefully restore some of the public’s trust in government.
Here is some background information on the bill that was passed by the General Assembly this past Friday.
Creates $100 gift cap on all gifts
This lowers the gift cap from $250 to $100 and eliminates the distinction between tangible and intangible gifts. Put simply, this bill makes it illegal for lobbyists, their clients and persons seeking to do business with the state or a local governments to give an elected official a gift worth more than $100. Elected officials must report gifts over $50.
Decreases Advisory Council Members
This bill decreases the number of members on the Conflict of Interests Advisory Council from 15 to 9. The speaker, Senate Committee on Rules and the Governor will each appoint three members. The Speaker and Senate Committee on Rules will each appoint one member from each party and a retired judge from a court. The Governor will appoint a designee from the Virginia Association on Counties, the Virginia Municipal League and a retired judge from a court of record.
Widely-attended event exception
This will create an exception to the gift cap for “widely attended events” that will allow elected officials to attend public events without potentially violating the law. This is similar to Congressional rules and Governor McAuliffe’s executive order.
Requires pre-authorized travel
This bill requires travel to be pre-approved by the Conflicts of Interest Advisory Council and requires travel to have some reasonable nexus between official duties and purpose of travel. Statutory travel related to service on a board or commission is exempt. Political travel is exempt from the pre-clearance requirement, but must still be reported on campaign finance filings. Travel will be reviewed based on the length of the trip, location of the trip, the value of the trip and any patterns of travel. The council has five days to approve or reject the travel. Officials may re-apply if the travel is rejected.
Codifies check-writing practice
Often elected officials will write a check for a gift they receive that exceeds the cap. This is a longstanding practice, most recently exercised by Governor McAuliffe. This simply codifies it in the Conflict of Interest Acts.
Mandates online filing
Elected officials must file disclosure forms online, which the Conflict of Interests Acts Council would post in a transparent, online, searchable database. Forms will be posted online six weeks after filing to allow for review and amendments of good faith errors.
Class 5 felony for disclosure form violations
This creates a class 5 felony for knowing gift-reporting violations. Previously, disclosure forms were required to be signed by a notary public. Falsifying a form with a notary public is a class 5 felony. In order to allow online filing, the notary requirement was removed. The end result is that the penalty is the same.
Investigatory & subpoena powers
The investigatory and subpoena powers remain entrusted to the Senate and House Ethics Advisory Panels. Commonwealth Attorneys remain empowered to investigate violations of these laws.
Commonwealth Opportunity Fund
The bill prohibits the Governor from knowingly accepting campaign contributions from companies seeking grants from the Commonwealth Opportunity Fund.
Certain definitions and aspects of the 2014 law are clarified, including limiting the “personal friend” exemption to exclude those seeking business with state or local government.