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Washington Post: Va. House speaker accused of using hardball tactics to rush ethics measure Print


Created:  Wednesday, March 4, 2015


RICHMOND — Criticism of an ethics bill adopted Friday in the final hour of the General Assembly session mounted this week, as a group of House Democrats urged Gov. Terry McAuliffe to make major amendments and Senate Republican leaders accused House Speaker William J. Howell of resorting to hardball tactics to rush passage.

The legislation, intended to tighten ethics rules in response to the corruption conviction of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) in September, cleared both chambers unanimously Friday.

But six Democratic delegates said in a letter to the governor Wednesday that the outcome might have been different had they been given more time to understand "glaring deficiencies" in legislation hashed out the last day.

Also this week, Senate Republican leaders issued a statement that appeared to stand by the substance of the bill, at one point describing it as "landmark" legislation. But they also took subtle aim at Howell, a fellow Republican, for pushing them to wrap up work on the bill Friday and adjourn the 46-day session a day early.

Their statement also disputed a Washington Post report that Senate Republicans had been prepared to "sink" what they saw as a deeply flawed bill until Howell made his threat.

The senators said in their letter that they were "prepared to stay for as long as it took." If anyone threatened to kill the bill, they said, it was Howell (Stafford) and other GOP House leaders, with their "willingness to adjourn without a bill."

"As it was clearly House leadership who raised the possibility of adjourning without passing an ethics bill, it is unconscionable that anyone would attempt to assign this conduct to the Senate Republicans or their conferees," Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said in a statement.

Five people familiar with negotiations — two of them GOP senators — told The Post that Senate Republicans considered walking away from what they called an overly complicated bill unless they had more time to get it right.

Finishing ahead of schedule was a priority for House Republicans this election year as a symbol of GOP efficiency and carried particular significance for Howell, who faces a primary challenge from a tea party activist. As negotiations dragged on Friday, Howell threatened to have the House adopt an ethics resolution just for that chamber and then declare the session over — a procedural move that would have forced the Senate to go home with no chance to pass a resolution of its own.

The "Speaker made it clear that if we did not reach an agreement and complete our work in twenty minutes, the House would adjourn . . . without approving an ethics bill," Norment said.

Howell spokesman Matthew Moran declined to comment on the Senate Republicans' statement. But in response to the Democratic delegates' letter, he said legislators had plenty of time to weigh in on the bill. He noted that the bill passed both chambers unanimously.

Five of the six Democrats who wrote to McAuliffe voted for the bill. The exception was Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke), who was recorded as not voting and later filed a form saying that he had intended to vote no.

"The bill was introduced on the first day," Moran said. "Everyone had 45 days to look at this issue, to read the bill, to study the bill, to look at the changes that were being proposed to the bill. . . . There were two opportunities on the House floor for Democrats to offer amendments. Not a single amendment was offered. . . . I don't think we've ever contended that the bill is perfect, but we've certainly made meaningful changes that we think strengthen our ethics laws."

House Democrats who wrote to the governor — Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax), Del. Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria), Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) and Rasoul — said the push for an early adjournment resulted in a flawed bill. "I believe they put a higher priority on adjourning a day early than they did on getting this ethics bill right," Simon said.

The ethics bill was intended to build on reforms passed last year in response to the indictment of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, who accepted $177,000 in luxury gifts, vacations and sweetheart loans from a businessman seeking to have the state promote his dietary supplement.

The state's unusually lax ethics laws had allowed public officials to accept personal gifts of unlimited value as long as any worth more than $50 were disclosed. Last year, lawmakers put a cumulative, annual cap of $250 on gifts but left "intangible gifts," such as meals and trips, unlimited.

Legislative leaders pledged to further tighten ethics laws after the McDonnells' conviction in September. But the House Democrats said the bill is riddled with so many exceptions that rules are actually eased.

This year's bill lowers the gift limit to $100 and eliminates the "intangible" gift loophole. But it changes the aggregate cap to a per-gift cap, meaning that lobbyists could give public officials an unlimited succession of $100 gifts without breaking the law.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said Republicans and Democrats who worked on the bill thought having an aggregate cap would force legislators to create "an accounting system for every key chain, mug or other trinket . . . as well as the chicken dinner you have to go to in your district during the off-season."

But Gilbert said House Republicans might agree to some of the other amendments Democrats are seeking — including closing an apparent loophole related to travel. The bill has a long list of items that should not be considered gifts, including transportation to meetings of the General Assembly. A lawmaker could accept a free trip to and from Richmond from a person or company "every weekend," Simon said. "Not only can he take it, he doesn't have to tell anybody he takes it," Simon said.

Gilbert said he was not certain that the bill creates that loophole but that if it does, he would be willing to close it.

"There's still a little bit there that I think is valid and we probably need to revisit," he said. "We'll be working . . . to try to get the governor to fix any obvious shortcomings that amount to unintended consequences."