Virginia has often been referred to as the “Wild West” of politics because of its limited campaign finance and ethics laws. The Commonwealth’s ethics laws are undergoing major changes, however, with more to come during the legislative session.
On January 11, in his second act as Governor, Terry McAuliffe signed Executive Order Number 2, which took immediate effect. The order covers officers and employees of the Executive Branch and their families and contains three major new restrictions. First, a covered person may not solicit any item of value from any source. Second, a covered person may not accept any gift from a lobbyist, a lobbyist’s principal, or an employee or agent of a lobbyist’s principal. Finally, a covered person may not accept any gift or gifts from any one source valued over $100 in the aggregate per year. The order also creates a commission to aid in enforcement. Attorney General Mark Herring has announced plans to implement a similar policy for his office.
Meanwhile, ethics reform continues to be a major topic in this year’s General Assembly session, where multiple bills are taking shape. It seems likely that some ethics legislation will pass this session—the only question is its scope. One bill with bipartisan support in the House of Delegates would impose a $250 limit on gifts from lobbyists and others with state business to state officials and their families, though it would still allow for gifts of meals and travel. It also would create a State Ethics Advisory Commission and impose new disclosure and training requirements on some officials.
These new laws will create many difficult questions. Lobbyists and other potential gift-givers must be wary of whether they are dealing with a covered person. Once-acceptable favors may now be prohibited gifts, or they may fall within an exception to the rules. Political players must be careful to stay on the right side of the law in Virginia’s new ethics era.