McAuliffe takes step toward reform in Virginia

Debate will continue in a state that received an F from Center ethics investigation

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No more Rolexes. No more all-expenses-paid holidays. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe put an end to some of these lavish shows of political affection on Saturday, his first day in office, signing an executive order that bars the governor and executive branch employees from accepting gifts worth more than $100.

The move came in the wake of poor grades from the State Integrity Investigation and a protracted scandal that plagued McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. McDonnell is under investigation by federal authorities in connection with a series of gifts he and his family received from a Virginia business executive.

The executive order completed a promise Democrat McAuliffe made during his gubernatorial campaign, which played out in the shadow of the McDonnell scandal. The order applies to executive branch employees and their families only, and excludes the state attorney general, lieutenant governor and staff of a few commissions. It also creates an ethics commission that will investigate complaints under the order and issue recommendations for whether an employee should be disciplined, a decision that will be left to department chiefs.

Longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth said the move marks a clear break from the previous administration. “McAuliffe has made a pretty clear statement about where he stands,” Holsworth said, “but what it doesn’t do is it doesn’t tell us what we’re going to go through in the legislature.”

Virginia has some of the weakest ethics laws in the nation. Politicians can accepts gifts of unlimited value, are not subject to oversight by an ethics committee and are free to raise vast sums of money under a porous regime of campaign finance laws. The combination earned Virginia a grade of F from the State Integrity Investigation, a state-by-state ranking of ethics and accountability laws released in March 2012 by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity.

The McDonnell scandal intensified pressure on Virginia’s politicians to enact reforms. Last week, the House majority and minority leaders, M. Kirkland Cox, a Republican, and David J. Toscano, a Democrat, announced a bipartisan deal that, if passed, would enact a limit of $250 on gifts from individuals to legislators and executive branch officials, and create an ethics commission as well. The deal would not address the state’s campaign finance laws, however, and the ethics commission as proposed would only have advisory powers, rendering it, “wan, weak and all but worthless,” according to a January 8 editorial by the Washington Post.

In his inaugural address, McAuliffe applauded legislative efforts to address ethics and called on lawmakers to pass “the strongest possible new ethics rules to hold all Virginia elected officials to the highest of standards,” according to his prepared address.

In a written statement, majority leader Cox said the governor has expressed support for the bipartisan legislative deal and that he looks forward to working with him to enact ethics reforms.

Holsworth said the bipartisan deal would merely be a first step, and would not address many aspects of the state’s troubled political ethics, including a cozy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers. Lobbyists would continue to be able to fund lawmakers’ trips, for example.

McDonnell has not been charged with a crime, but in December the Post reported that federal prosecutors were prepared to do so before deciding to hold off. McDonnell and his family received tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from the owner of a dietary supplement company. Many of those gifts went undisclosed. Virginia officials must disclose all gifts over $50, but their family members aren’t required to do so.