(AP) An overhaul of Virginia’s ethics laws governing public officials is advancing in the General Assembly with some reluctance from a top lawmaker.
Leaders in both chambers promised to make ethics reform a top priority last year after the conviction of Republican former Gov. Bob McDonnell on federal corruption charges.
But Republican Sen. Majority Leader Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. said Wednesday that the McDonnell conviction had a minimal impact on the push for ethics reform this session, which he said was instead being driven by the news media.
“You know why we are doing this?” Norment said at a Senate panel hearing on an omnibus ethics bill he is sponsoring. “Because the media is on our backs.”
McDonnell was sentenced last month to two years in federal prison for soliciting more than $175,000 in loans, gifts and luxury vacations in exchange for promoting a diet supplement from the Governor’s Mansion.
Norment said there were no laws the General Assembly could pass that would have “precluded” McDonnell from doing what he did.
“You can’t legislate people’s behavior,” he said.
Norment’s comments struck a different tone than the public statements his office issued with House Speaker William J. Howell following the McDonnell conviction when they promised to make ethics reform a top priority.
“We pledge today to the people of Virginia to take the additional steps necessary to rebuild the trust and confidence we ask of you,” they said in a newspaper op-ed in September.
McDonnell will remain free while appealing his conviction, a federal court ruled last month.
The ex-governor’s wife, Maureen, who was also convicted, faces sentencing later this month. She is also appealing.
Also on Wednesday, a Republican-controlled House of Delegates subcommittee endorsed a measure Wednesday that would reduce the current $250 cap on gifts to public officials to $100. The bill would also eliminate the exemption in current law that places no cap on so-called intangible gifts such as meals, travel and entertainment.
The measure, sponsored by Republican Del. Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County, does not include Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposal for an independent ethics commission that would investigate alleged violations and, if warranted, refer them for prosecution.
Instead, Gilbert’s bill calls for an advisory council without such sweeping powers.
Norment, whose bill is similar to Gilbert’s, said there’s no appetite in the Senate for McAuliffe’s proposed commission.
The House panel also endorsed a bill from Democratic Del. Joseph Preston of Petersburg that would prohibit a member of the Assembly who is serving a criminal sentence from attending legislative sessions.
Del. Joseph Morrissey, an independent from Henrico County, is attending House sessions this year while on a work-release program that requires him to spend his nights in jail. He was convicted in December on a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
— BILL SIZEMORE, ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press