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The Blue & Gray Press | January 23, 2019

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Ethics reform bill passes

Following the recent scandal and subsequent indictment of former Gov. Bob McDonnell, the Virginia House of Delegates passed an ethics reform bill in Richmond last week.
McDonnell came under fire when Star Scientific, a campaign contributor, provided the Governor and his wife with lavish gifts. McDonnell went on to support legislation that would help Star Scientifics profits.
There are two main focuses within the ethics bill: a monetary limit on gifts and more frequent disclosure reporting.
Prior to the reform, there was no dollar amount limit on gifts that elected officials recieved, as long as they were disclosed in the yearly report. With this bill in effect, there is now a limit of $250 per item for any tangible gifts given to officials. There was an exception made for trips and meals, which will still not have a monetary limit.
“When you ask people to develop ethic policies for themselves, they don’t exactly have an incentive to be really, really aggressive. And so what you see here is a tightening up of laws that were really loose, but make no mistake about it, they could have been much tighter than this,” said Professor Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the Center for Media and Leadership Studies.
In addition to gift limits, the reform will require that elected officials file personal disclosure forms every six months. The previous standard was only once a year. According to Farnsworth, this may not be transparent and far-reaching enough.
“There’s no need to have disclosure every six months. It can be current, up-to-the-minute disclosure, where any updates could be filed every month, or every two weeks, or something like that. We have the technology for instantaneous updating of these reports,” said Farnsworth.
Farnsworth also noted a gap in the reform, as personal investment holdings of these elected officials remain unaddressed in the legislative process of this ethics reform bill.
“One of the things that hasn’t received much scrutiny is the extent to which personal investment holdings of law makers can effect the choices they make, in terms of helping some businesses as opposed to others. It’s a potential problem that doesn’t get much attention,” said Farnsworth.
While the reform bill provides much needed ethical progress, the motivation behind it seemed reactionary to McDonnell’s assignment.
“The legislature could not have ignored the ethics scandal of the last governor. They absolutely had to do something,” said Farnsworth. “What they did here was something that allowed them to go back to the voters and say they tightened up the ethics rules. What it also allows them to do is to still use some of the loopholes that remain, for their own personal advantage.”
McDonnell has already been formally charged for his failure to accurately disclose all of the gifts he received as governor. His trial is expected to begin this summer.