McAuliffe names panel to reform Virginia’s ethics laws

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Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia has rolled out another in a series of attempts to repair the state’s broken reputation, creating a commission to focus on ethics and accountability in government.

The move comes in the wake of the conviction of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, McAuliffe’s predecessor, on corruption charges stemming from gifts he accepted while in office. In a press conference announcing the panel on Thursday, McAuliffe, a Democrat, implicitly acknowledged the case and also cited the state’s failing grade in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, calling the grade “one of the many warnings the state has received on its mediocre record on accountability and transparency.” McAuliffe’s action also represents a tacit acknowledgment that reform efforts undertaken by the legislature earlier this year were inadequate. 

The ten-member commission will be led by former U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat, and former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican. The panel is scheduled to announce recommendations in December for how the legislature can address a broad range of subjects, including limiting gifts to public officials and the creation of an independent ethics commission. McAuliffe said the panel was comprised of “pragmatists and problem-solvers.”

The state received an overall grade of F from the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven, 50-state review of accountability and transparency in state government released in 2012 by the Center, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. The commission will address a number of issues that the Center identified as particular problems, including political financing, lobbyist disclosure and ethics enforcement agencies.

Earlier this month, McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were found guilty of public corruption in federal court. The trial grew out of a series of gifts the couple had accepted from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a Virginia businessman. That scandal, which emerged last year, pushed ethics reform to the top of the state’s agenda during this year’s legislative session.

One of McAuliffe’s first official acts as governor was to announce a limit on gifts to many executive branch employees. The legislature later passed its own reforms, which included a $250 cap on gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists or people seeking business before the state. The measure was widely criticized as anemic, however.

After the McDonnell verdict, state House Speaker William J. Howell and Senate Leader

Thomas K. Norment Jr., both Republicans, wrote an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch saying the legislature needed to do more. They issued a joint statement Thursday saying the legislature “looks forward to reviewing the Commission’s findings,” but that “ultimately, the responsibility to make changes,” rests with lawmakers.

In an email, Brian Coy, a spokesman for McAuliffe, said the governor plans to introduce legislation next year based on the commission’s recommendations, saying, “the General Assembly has publicly recognized the need to strengthen the law that they passed last year and the Governor is looking forward to working with them to do just that.” He added that the commission will continue to meet in 2015.

State Sen. John S. Edwards, a Democrat who was chairman of the Senate Rules Committee last session, told the Center that he supports the governor’s goals, but that he is not confident the legislature can pass meaningful reforms.

“I’m skeptical,” he said.

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