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News Leader: Lawmakers pass legislation tightening ethics laws Print

Created:  Tuesday, February 10, 2015 9:54PM

 

Virginia lawmakers passed legislation Tuesday tightening the ethics laws governing public officials' behavior.

The measures passed by overwhelming margins, but not before some legislators expressed concern that they were overreacting to expectations generated by the news media following last year's corruption trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell.

State senators, most of whom ended up voting for the 110-page bill, nevertheless berated it as "overbearing," a "bureaucratic nightmare," a "quagmire" and an "exercise in self-flagellation."

"There are still people out there in the general public who think we're scoundrels and will sell our votes for $250 or $50 or whatever the amount may be, and I continue to take umbrage at that," said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican from James City County and the chief Senate patron of the legislation.

Sen. John Watkins, a Republican from Powhatan County, said the ethics legislation has reassured him that he made the right decision not to seek re-election this year.

"I think this is going to drive people out of the legislative process," he said.

Sen. Bryce Reeves, a Republican from Spotsylvania County, said he took no pleasure in the vote. "Most of us are going to vote for this bill," he said. "Why? Because we have the press that's going to beat us over the head if we don't."

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 35-1. A similar version was passed 93-6 by the House of Delegates.

The legislation reduces the current $250 cap on gifts to public officials to $100. It also eliminates the exemption in current law that places no cap on so-called "intangible" gifts such as meals, travel and entertainment.

Lawmakers rejected Gov. Terry McAuliffe's proposal for an independent ethics commission that would investigate alleged violations and, if warranted, refer them for prosecution.

Instead, the legislation establishes an advisory ethics council that would not have such sweeping powers.

In the House, a handful of Democrats opposed the bill, saying it did not go far enough.

Arlington Democratic Del. Patrick A. Hope said that without campaign-finance limits — Virginia is one of a handful of states where donors can give unlimited amounts — public officials can still be corrupted with large donations.

Fairfax County Democratic Del. Scott Surovell said that without a strong independent investigative body that conducts audits on its own, there is little chance of wrongdoers being caught.

"There's no accountability in our system," he said.

But Republican Del. Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County said that the legal system already has the power to prosecute wrongdoing by public officials. He said no ethics commission could truly be nonpartisan and the one envisioned by McAuliffe would exist only "to settle political scores."


 



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