RICHMOND, Va. — Lawmakers approved new gift limits and disclosure policies for public officials Monday in what they said is an effort to restore public confidence following a gift scandal that resulted in federal corruption charges being filed against former Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The Senate passed an ethics bill after a lengthy debate in which even supporters enumerated its flaws, saying it was either an unnecessary bill or an inadequate one.
Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax County spoke harshly of the bill, saying it would have done nothing to prevent unethical behavior in the past nor would it prevent future misdeeds.
Saslaw said he knew of “a ton” of other alleged ethical mishaps by state officials — besides those alleged in the McDonnell case — that weren’t publicized. The root of all of those problems, he said, was the character of the wrongdoers, not the state’s laws.
Still, he added before voting in favor of the bill, “This is the best we got.”
The bill would limit “tangible” gifts from lobbyists to $250 per item, but would not prevent lawmakers from accepting expensive trips and meals from special interests. The Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, to put limits on the kind of travel lawmakers can accept.
“There is absolutely no reason for members of the General Assembly to accept free trips on corporate jets to sporting events or safaris,” Ebbin said.
He too voted in favor the bill, saying it made at least some improvements to the current laws.
Some of the more than $165,000 in loans and gifts that federal prosecutors allege McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, improperly took from a dietary supplement maker in exchange for helping to promote his products are not tangible, including the use of vacation properties. The McDonnells were indicted last month and their trial is set for July. They have denied any illegal behavior.
The lone dissenting vote in the Senate came from Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who said the bill had been crafted in a “knee-jerk fashion” and should be studied further.
The House also gave preliminary approval to a similar bill Monday. There too, its supporters acknowledged the bill’s shortcomings, but said it was a solid starting point.
Like the Senate’s version, it would create an ethics advisory council to help guide lawmakers.
Both chambers’ bills would also require lawmakers to file personal disclosure forms twice a year instead of once.
The House is set to give final passage to its bill Tuesday.
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