Virginia legislators accept fewer gifts

  • Daniel Hensel

The state of Virginia has some of the most lax gift laws in the country. Perhaps that’s why its last three governors have found themselves in hot water in one way or another because of contributions and gifts.

But while little has changed in the state’s law even after governor after governor faces blinding scrutiny for their judgment, or lack thereof, state legislators have begun to exercise some self-discipline. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), which compiles and publishes data on money in politics from the state, has confirmed a decline in the proportion of General Assembly members who have accepted at least one gift valued at more than $50. That number stands at 53 percent, down from 62 percent the year before.

Dicke Bell, a delegate from Staunton, VA, attributes the decline to the scandal surrounding former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who resigned in 2014 after revelations showed he had accepted $177,000 in gifts from a businessman who sought to influence state policy to benefit his company. Other delegates confirmed that McDonnell’s indictment and conviction served as a deterrent. McDonnell was convicted of bribery and his sentence was upheld by an appeals court. The Supreme Court vacated the conviction in June 2016.

The data was collected by VPAP from November 2015 to April 2016, before McDonnell was let off the hook. While Virginia’s laws remain toothless — in fact, Del. Bell specifically noted that a 2015 state ethics law likely did not affect the propensity of legislators to accept gifts — McDonnell’s legal trouble reveals a critical tenet of law enforcement: creating consequences for one person’s behavior will prevent others from continuing in that path. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate McDonnell’s sentence may alleviate legislators’ fears of prosecution as a result of accepting gifts.

Virginia still has a long way to go. More than half of its legislators received gifts over $50, including meals, Virginia Tech football tickets and even travel to France and Syria. Virginia should limit the gifts that its politicians can accept and strengthen enforcement to ensure that elected officials are representing their constituents, not corporations, unions, or the wealthy few who dole out gifts.