Simplicity regarding gifts

Published 11:24 am Saturday, February 8, 2014

Virginia Delegate Rick Morris, whose 64th District includes a portion of the area, has what amounts to an unusual position regarding gifts to state legislators: He doesn’t accept them.

Morris is the only state legislator representing Western Tidewater not to be listed on the Virginia Public Access Project’s recent listing of legislators receiving gifts or trips valued at $50 or more. In light of the gift scandal that rocked the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and resulted in indictments against McDonnell and his wife, Morris’ policy demonstrates a level of discretion to which more elected officials should aspire.

To be sure, many of the gifts legislators receive and report are innocuous in nature. The commonwealth’s rules for reporting freebies are pretty relaxed — they don’t require reporting of gifts to legislators’ family members by special interest groups, for instance — but they also can require, for example, notification of such unobjectionable things as plaques presented to legislators by organizations honoring their service. It’s unlikely that a delegate might feel beholden to, for example, the Chamber of Commerce, for receiving a $100 plaque from the organization.

Similarly, not all free travel is objectionable. There’s a qualitative difference between, say, receiving a week’s vacation at Smith Mountain Lake from a company seeking to curry favor with state regulators — as happened in the McDonnell case — and a legislator having his expenses paid for a trip to explore legitimate economic development opportunities.

But there are plenty of marginal or questionable gifts included on the lists for Western Tidewater’s legislative delegation. Expensive dinners from high-powered Richmond lobbyists, gift boxes from organizations that would like to influence votes on important legislation and tickets to sporting events all represent the sorts of things that cause the average Virginian to wonder who’s pulling the strings in Richmond.

Gifts to officials ranged from gift boxes, to meals, to trips and expensive sporting tickets, and State Sen. John Cosgrove (R-14) led all Western Tidewater Officials in 2013 in receiving $2,218, which is a pale comparison to what McDonnell received, $48,120, and Cosgrove only barely cracked the top 50 in the state. State Sen. Louise Lucas (D-18) received $824 and Del. Roslyn Tyler (D-75) received $373.

Most folks don’t expect their legislators to live the lives of cloistered monks, and there are examples that illustrate how the whole issue of gifts can become complicated. But with voter distrust of elected officials at an all-time high, Rick Morris’ vow of celibacy regarding freebies is a refreshing bit of simplicity.