Lawmakers: Ethics focus in 2015

Published 11:03 am Saturday, September 20, 2014

By Tracy Agnew/Suffolk News Herald
Special to The Tidewater News

RICHMOND—Local legislators say they foresee a renewed focus on ethics in the 2015 General Assembly session after the convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on federal corruption charges.

The McDonnells were found guilty of numerous charges stemming from their relationship with a donor who gave them thousands of dollars in loans and gifts in exchange for what he believed would be access to top state officials to whom he could plug his company’s products.

Ethics reform was one of the focal points of the 2014 General Assembly session, as the McDonnells were indicted during the session and the scandal had been unfolding for several months.

“The McDonnell conviction has shown that we can’t rest on our laurels,” Sen. Louise Lucas, a Democrat who represents the 18th district, with parts of Western Tidewater, wrote in an emailed statement. “We still need stronger ethics laws. Last year’s bipartisan bill was a start, but there is much work to do.

“The General Assembly needs to come together around new policies that restore Virginians’ trust in their public officials. That is what the people expect and deserve.”

Last year’s legislation established the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, bumped up the frequency of reporting requirements for public officials and lobbyists, and made some changes to the definition of gifts.

The council is expected to review the disclosure forms filed by public officials and lobbyists, maintain a searchable electronic database of them starting in July 2015, furnish formal advisory opinions about ethics and conflict issues, conduct training seminars for public officials and lobbyists, and more.

Sen. Tommy Norment, Republican District 3, who carried last year’s legislation, said he expects to be in the lead on the issue again this year.

“I am sure the General Assembly, between now and January, is going to look to close any other potential loopholes that exist,” Norment said. “The continued reform needs to be deliberate, and it needs to give confidence to the general public that their public officials are serious about this.”

Republican Sen. John Cosgrove of District 14 said he also believes more bills will be forthcoming, though he’s of the opinion McDonnell did not break any laws.

“I still think that Bob was not properly treated in this particular federal investigation,” Cosgrove said, adding he believes McDonnell “may prevail on appeal.”

Even so, he said, “Transparency is a good thing, and ethics laws are probably a good thing.”

Delegate Rick Morris, a Republican of Suffolk, said there needs to be clarity on the ethics issue on both the federal and state levels.

“You’re not sure what’s going to get you in trouble and what’s not,” Morris said. “We don’t want people inadvertently getting in trouble.”