Gilbert: Ethics bill will restore trust in government

Former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s conviction on public corruption charges was the catalyst for the ethics bill that passed the General Assembly on Friday, but its stricter limits on gift giving don’t stop with state elected officials.

The bill’s provisions also apply to all local elected officials and their interactions with lobbyists, the companies and organizations for whom lobbyists work and those trying to win contracts from state and local governments.

The bill, which could be vetoed, amended or signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, outlaws individual gifts of more than $100, although there is no limit on the number of gifts worth $100 or less that a lobbyist could give to a lawmaker.

The bill marks a change from the $250 gift limit under existing law. The new bill’s $100 limit also applies to meals and trips, the first time such so-called intangible gifts are capped.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, spearheaded passage of the bill in the House of the Delegates and was the lead negotiator from the House in hammering out a final agreement that was almost stymied by last minute objections from the Senate.

Gilbert said some senators objected to media coverage that they perceived as painting state lawmakers as a group of crooks and scoundrels. The fate of McDonnell notwithstanding, opponents insisted corruption is not rampant in state government and the ethics crackdown is an overreaction fed by the media.

Gilbert said he agreed that most public officials are honest but added: “Even though we had a very high profile case of a governor as a public official violating public trust, most public officials don’t behave in a way that requires extra scrutiny, but there are those that will.”

Some critics of the bill have said a lobbyist could circumvent the law’s intentions by giving a single lawmaker numerous individual gifts as long each one is $99 or less. Gilbert said he believed transparency provisions in the bill that require online reporting of gifts valued at more than $50 will deter anyone tempted to accept multiple gifts.

“If a public official is trying to find ways around the prohibitions in this day and age, they’re either insane or an outright crook,” Gilbert said, adding that, “I don’t think as a practical matter, that is anything for anybody to worry about.”

A nine-member ethics council created under the bill will oversee enforcement of a requirement that free trips taken by lawmakers have a purpose related to their official duties. A trip deemed to be official business would not be considered a gift and the money received from a lobbyist for payment of transportation expenses would not have to be disclosed.

McAuliffe has sought an ethics council that had subpoena powers and the authority to impose fines and other penalties.

Gilbert said the signals he has received from McAuliffe indicate the governor is “very happy” with the bill, but may want to amend it. If so, Gilbert said, lawmakers “are going to be working with the governor to make it better,” especially in improving transparency provisions.

Gilbert said he is confident the bill will help restore public trust in government without inhibiting the ability of officials to meet and interact with their constituents.

“To me, this is a very dramatic step forward we’ve taken this year, and I’m happy to have been a part of it,” Gilbert said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com