H-SC's Howard Hails Ethics Proposals Given To Governor

Published 12:12 pm Thursday, December 4, 2014

HAMPDEN-SYDNEY — An independent watchdog panel should be created as the foundational element in a statewide ethics reform initiative, Governor Terry McAuliffe has been told.

The governor received the interim report of recommendations this week from his Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government and the proposals would apply to both state and local elected officials, such as boards of supervisors and town councils, if approved by the General Assembly.

The commission’s 10 members include Hampden-Sydney College President Dr. Christopher B. Howard, who told The Herald that the committee “endorsed the report and its recommendations on the assumption that a comprehensive approach is required.”

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The commission was created in response to the McDonnell scandal and the interim recommendations include a $250 cap on both tangible and intangible gifts in aggregate over a calendar year that “applies to all givers, not just lobbyists, principals of lobbyists and parties to contracts.”

Public officials would also have to disclose any gift exceeding $100.

Farmville’s town council has been reviewing its own policies, in the wake of the McDonnell case, and Mayor David E. Whitus told The Herald Wednesday that “given the governor’s commission recommendations and the new laws that will likely be passed in this session, we will probably wait and see what new laws come down.”

However, the mayor believes the gift limits won’t have much impact on local government.

“Outside of receiving a meal or token marketing item,” he said, “locally, we do not receive gifts.”

The centerpiece of the commission’s recommendations is creation of an independent Ethics Review Commission.

The independent commission, the panel’s interim report states, “is at the core of the commission’s interim recommendations. Other reforms we propose presume the existence of an independent watchdog that would have the authority to issue advice on ethics laws, implement random audits, initiate investigations of potential violations of ethics laws and policies—rather than react to external complaints—and issue appropriate sanctions and waivers when necessary and appropriate,” the interim report states.

President Howard told The Herald, “I believe the recommendations, if enacted in their entirety, will have the desired impact, especially if supported by an independent Ethics Review Commission.”

Other key recommendations include a clear prohibition against voting by board and commission members on any matter in which a conflict of interest exists and an expanded definition of conflicts of interests that broadens the definition of immediate family and includes business associates.

In a press release from the governor’s office, commission co-chair, former U.S. House of Representatives member Rick Boucher, noted the many hours invested by the commission members and praised the effectiveness of the recommendations.

“By imposing an overall limit on both tangible and intangible gifts to public officials, creating an independent ethics review commission with investigative and enforcement authority, and strengthening Virginia’s conflict of interests prohibitions, these interim recommendations constitute a major step forward in the effort to ensure that in Virginia no interest comes before the public interest,” the former congressman said.

Fellow co-chairman, former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, pointed to the complexity of the issues involved and stressed “they are crucial to regaining the public’s trust in their leaders…These recommendations represent our collective effort to provide the governor with realistic and meaningful reforms.”

Gov. McAuliffe, who had requested the recommendations be on his desk by December 1, lauded the “hard work and intellectual rigor that have gone into the development of this report.”

By meeting the governor’s deadline, there is now sufficient time for the recommendations to be drafted into legislation for considering by the General Assembly in January.

While the wait is on to see what recommendations become law, Mayor Whitus observed, “each locality needs strong guidelines on how public monies can be spent on elected officials.”

The commission’s other members are former House of Delegates member Viola Baskerville, former President of the University of Virginia John Casteen III, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairperson Sharon Bulova, Vice-President for Advancement at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Susan A. Magill, attorney and former Assistant Attorney General Courtney M. Malveaux, former Delegate Joe T. May, and former President and CEO of BB&T Scott & Stringfellow, Inc. John Sherman, Jr.

The commission will next address redistricting reforms, campaign finance, lobbying laws, the selection and service of judges and other public officials, and gubernatorial terms.