By Joe Beck
Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, Friday proposed an overhaul of state ethics rules with a bill aimed at preventing scandals like the one that hovered over former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell during his last year in office.
The bill is the product of months of work by a bipartisan group of legislators in the House of Delegates and Senate. Gilbert said Wednesday he hopes the bill's bipartisan pedigree gives it a strong chance at passage.
"So far it's been very positive," Gilbert said of his colleagues' reaction to the proposals. "We've had positive comments form both parties in the Senate and had a good meeting with the governor about this package. We're hopeful it will advance."
The bill's major provisions include a ban on tangible gifts valued at more than $250 to state officials and family members. The bill also bans solicitation of such gifts; requires disclosure of family members' finances and gifts and establishes an ethics commission that would give advice on possible conflicts of interest and conduct regular training sessions for members of the legislature, executive branch and local government officials.
Gilbert said part of the bill will require more frequent reports disclosing gifts, tangible and non-tangible, to state officials.
"We have always focused on transparency in Virginia," Gilbert said, "and we're trying to enhance transparency. The problem that we have run into is that somebody can give you an expensive gift, and we don't think that's good public policy, and we have consensus to cap it at $250."
The bill has received criticism on some blogs and from a few lawmakers for not going far enough. Some of the most common objections have cited the lack of investigative authority for the ethics advisory council and an absence of tightened rules on campaign finance.
Gilbert said the current civil and criminal penalties for ethics violations dampened the need to give the ethics board greater investigative powers.
"We have both civil and criminal penalties that are already in place for violations of various ethics laws," Gilbert said. "I don't know if that is a problem that needs a solution given that we have criminal and civil penalties.
"What we were lacking is a body that officials can turn to for advice and also provide mandatory training. I think it's a very big step forward."
The bill also allows lobbyists to continue to pay for food, travel and outings organized by advocacy groups.
"We are a part-time legislature," Gilbert said. "If you restrict too sharply people's ability to attend those functions, they never get to interact with people that we work with very closely. We don't get to learn about their issues."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org