Legislators respond to court ruling on McDonnell case

Todd Gilbert
Chris Collins

A state legislator who spearheaded ethics reforms in government reacted Monday to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s bribery conviction.

McDonnell was found guilty in 2014 of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement. A judge sentenced McDonnell to serve two years in prison, but said McDonnell could remain free while justices considered his appeal.

The Supreme Court unanimously decided to vacate the Republican governor’s conviction, finding that the jury at trial received faulty instructions regarding the definition of “official action.” The action allows prosecutors to retry McDonnell though under a stricter standard.

McDonnell’s conviction spurred the General Assembly to consider making changes to the state’s ethics regulations. Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, led the effort by sponsoring a bill that sought to limit interaction between lobbyists and state and local governments. Gilbert also led the negotiations to iron out a final agreement with state senators, some of whom opposed the legislation.

“It is compelling that the often-divided Supreme Court spoke with one voice today,” Gilbert states in an email Monday. “No citizen, even a Governor, should be subject to imprisonment based on a law that is redefined by the government after the fact.

“However, the actions which led to the Governor’s indictment understandably shook the public trust,” Gilbert goes on to state. “I am proud to have sponsored the legislation that led to significant changes to our ethics laws and the creation of the statewide ethics panel on which I now serve.”

The legislation reduces the gift limit from $250 to $100 and outlaws individual gifts exceeding $100 but does not limit the number of gifts worth $100 or less that lobbyists can give lawmakers. The $100 limit also now applies to meals and trips. Gilbert has said provisions in the bill that require lobbyists to report gifts of more than $50 likely would deter anyone from accepting multiple gifts.

The legislation also created an ethics counsel to oversee enforcement of the rule on free trips that require such excursions have a purpose connected to their duties.

Del. Christopher Collins, R-Winchester, also responded Monday to the court’s ruling.

“First, I am very pleased the supreme court found what many of us believed in that the ‘official acts’ language of the law was too broad for anyone to really understand what that meant,” Collins states in an email. “It was concerning to everyone that simply introducing two people together, and taking no further action, would be considered an official act. Although some of his actions clearly raise an eyebrow, they fall short of being illegal.

“Second, we have been working on revising the ethics rules for the General Assembly for two years now and continue to work it in an attempt to avoid this type of situation in the future,” Collins goes on to state. “Clear language and definitions are needed to avoid any concerns in the future.”

Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, did not respond to requests for comments on the court’s ruling.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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