Monday, May 27, 2013

Changing Virginia's Disclosure Laws

There's been a lot in the news lately about gifts and politicians in Virginia.  Apparently, the catering at the Governor's daughter's wedding was paid for by one of his political donors embroiled in a tax dispute with the state.  The Governor didn't disclose it by claiming that it was a gift to his daughter - not him.

Ken Cuccinelli failed to reports a few gifts from the same donor. Some of the Governor's cabinet members forgot to disclose gifts.  Several legislators also claim that they forgot to disclose gifts.  Apparently, the disclosure system only works effectively when the Federal Bureau of Investigation is in town. 

I've had a few constituents email me with questions about where I stand.  Here are some thoughts.

What's The Law?
In Virginia, we have no limit on the amount of gifts that can be accepted. The trade off for that is that we all gifts made to legislators must be reported if they are more than $50 unless their are from a close friend or relative.  You can see what gifts I have reported here on VPAP.  If the voters don't like the gifts a member accepts, then they can express their judgment accordingly.

The rationale for these laws is pretty clear.  As the Lynchburg News Advance recently wrote:
In terms of full disclosure of all trips and gifts valued at $50 or more . . . . neglecting to report trip points to the importance of the legislation that requires lawmakers to make public their relationships with special interests seeking to influence the formation of public policy. The 140 men and women who serve in the General Assembly are powerful individuals, and such relationships should be disclosed and fully transparent in the spirit of good governance.
If you are curious about the form we have to file, you can see it here.

Gifts I've Received
I thought it might be helpful to have an understanding of some of the gifts I've received.  Last year, I accepted two tickets to a Redskins game (I have season tickets of my own) in their box and Dominion flew about a dozen legislators to Wise, Virginia for a tour of their new Hybrid Energy Center.  We also viewed Clinch Valley College while we were there.  I posted the pictures on Facebook here.  Driving would take about sixteen hours so by flying we were able to do it all in one day. 

I accepted tickets to Kings Dominion and Bush Gardens' Christmas Village.  I reported a dinner hosted by INOVA Hospital with many of their executives and the entire Northern Virginia Legislative Delegation.  This dinner happens every year.  I also attended a dinner with the Virginia Technology Council - it was a pretty typical awards dinner but for some reason they value it as being a $388 gift so I put that down. 

I spoke at a Virginia Trial Lawyers continuing legal education class and they claimed a gift of $195 to me because they waived my attendance fees.  I didn't stick around before or after my segment because I had work to do, but I guess I could have at no charge.   

In 2011, the Taiwanese government funded a seven-day trip to Taiwan with myself, Delegate Joe Morrissey, eight other legislators from Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware, and about a dozen congressional staffers.  We met with several cabinet officials, business development groups, The American Institute (Embassy), toured a park and an industrial park, a factory that made screens for tablets, a solar panel company with a factory in Delaware, rode on a high speed train, toured a nursery and the National Museum, and ate a lot of chinese food that was very different from "American" Chinese food.  I posted the pictures of my trip here and here back in 2011.  I also reported a couple other dinners, some more VTLA fees, and INOVA gave me some tickets to the Mystics game (I took my three daughters).

In 2010, the only gifts I reported were for a dinner with the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority.

For whatever it's worth, my wife did not go to Taiwan or to any dinners.  She did go with the kids and I to Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion, and she went to the Redskins game.   Life with four kids doesn't permit my wife and I go do dozens of dinners or trips together. 

I've also turned down some gifts.  For example, Virginia Uranium flew over a dozen legislators to France for a tour of a decommissioned uranium mine in a climate similar to Virginia.  We are offered circus tickets every year.  There's probably some others I can't think of right now. 

From my point of view, we need to clarify the family member issue, possible consider limits, providing better sunshine all around, and taking these issues out of the hands of the legislature. 

Reform Family Member Gifts
I have always felt that gifts to family members are disclosable and I have disclosed them.  For example, I disclosed the gifts that benefited my wife (Dominion, Busch Gardens & Kings Dominion), my children (Busch Gardens & Kings Dominion), she went with me to one dinner (Virginia League of Conservation Voters).  There is no question, this needs to be clarified.  If Governor's interpretation is being applied by other officials, it would create an exception that one could drive a truck through.   

Gift Limits
Terry McAuliffe has endorsed a gift limit.  When you look at the quantum of gifts accepted that have been disclosed by the Governor compared to legislators, the statewide office holders receive much larger gifts - the Governor has four listed each valued at $25,000 or more.  You don't see many legislators receiving a gift valued over $10,000.  A limit of $10,000 per donor to statewide officeholders and $10,000 per legislator might be worth exploring. 

Sunlight on Other Financial Matters
Disclosure of other matters financial interests should be addressed as well.  For example, in 2011, I introduced legislation that would require legislators to disclose whether they have claimed any state tax credits.  If we can directly benefit by a targeted tax credit, the voters ought to know.  We have to list our contributions and campaign expenditures, sources of income for ourselves and our spouse, businesses sectors with whom  we earn income, representations before the state, our debts and our investments.  If a piece of legislation puts another $5,000 of tax revenue back in our pocket, voters ought to know.

State Ethics Commission
If we really wanted to get serious, we should create a commission with jurisdiction over setting rules for conflicts of interest, economic disclosures, redistricting, legislator salaries and benefits, staff salaries and benefits, investigations, and referrals for prosecution.  Even taxpayers live under constant threat of an audit for voluntarily reported taxes - random audits would also help with accuracy in legislator's campaign disclosures. 

There's lots of room for improvement.


  1. The Commonwealth always wants to portray itself as the model of government- yet it persists in proving itself to be beholden to private and nearly nefarious influences.

  2. Isn't it a shame that our selected representatives need or want more government to oversee them? That seems odd to me.