Underlying the growing corruption scandal surrounding Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is a piece of state law that places no barrier on the value of gifts to public officials, as long as anything worth more than $50 is disclosed. Gifts to family members of elected officials, such as those recieved by Gov. McDonnell's wife, are currently exempt from disclosure. If multiple Virginia politicians from both parties have their way, this will all soon be changing.
The most outspoken advocate for reforming Virginia's gift laws right now is Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. In April, McAuliffe proposed a ban on all gifts to public officials and their families with value over $100. This would include the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, and members of the General Assembly. The proposal would also ban any gifts from "registered lobbyists, principals who have retained registered lobbyists, or all those having business before the Commonwealth or involvement in active procurement." The Democrat who is running for attorney general, state Sen. Mark Herring, gave support to McAuliffe's $100 proposal on Wednesday.
McAuliffe, of course, has a big political advantage in being out front on this issue: The more aggressive he appears on gift requirements, the starker a contrast he can draw between himself and Bob McDonnell, and, by association, Republican gubernatorial candidate and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Cuccinelli, for his part, is pushing himself away from the governor as fast as he can. However, Cuccinelli also has close ties with Jonnie Williams, the Star Scientific executive who has given $145,000 to McDonnell and his wife. Cuccinelli has accepted vacations at Williams's home, airplane flights, and "a box of food supplement" worth $6,711, and he has invested more than $10,000 in Star Scientific.
The attorney general has called for gift-law reform all the same. Following new Washington Post revelations, Cuccinelli on Wednesday said the growing scandal "emphasizes the need for clearer and faster disclosures that cover the whole family, as well as a cap on the size and types of gifts." Cuccinelli has proposed a 10-day reporting window for gifts valued over $500, and disclosure reporting for gifts given to immediate family members.
Cuccinelli has not yet proposed an actual number for a cap on the value of gifts.
Other Virginia Republicans are going further. Bob Marshall, a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates, is proposing a gift law that would require reporting any gift of $100 or more from "a company or individual with business before the state of Virginia to any adult family member of an elected official." Marshall's proposal also strengthens reporting requirements for the General Assembly, with all gifts exceeding $100 needing to be reported within five working days.
Gov. McDonnell himself has come out in support of reforming Virginia's gift law. On Tuesday, he gave some support to the idea that gift disclosure for family members who are living in the Governor's Mansion, saying such reforms—along with a gift cap—would be "fair for discussion." Of course, any new reforms wouldn't go into effect until next January. When McDonnell will be out of office.
Update (5:20pm): The campaign of Mark Obenshain, the Republican nominee for attorney general, sent along this statement on his position on Virginia's gift laws:
"I am firmly committed to the principles of open and transparent government. I support a ban on gifts to elected officials over a $100 threshold, and believe that the same rules should apply to members of an elected official's household as well. In order to maintain the public trust, Virginia must also promptly conduct a thorough review of gift disclosure laws, which would include evaluating the penalties or sanctions for failure to disclose."
This hard cap on gifts makes it even more unlikely that the current unlimited situation will continue for much longer.
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