As we described in a January 16 post, moments after being sworn in as Virginia’s 72nd governor on January 11, Governor McAuliffe signed an executive order imposing new gift restrictions on Executive Branch employees and officers and their immediate family members. The Executive Order applies only to individuals that work in Virginia’s Executive Branch. As expected, Virginia’s legislators have followed suit and have enacted their own ethics reform rules for members of the legislature and certain state and local officials.
The new law limits the value of gifts covered officials may solicit or accept from lobbyists, lobbyist principals, and government contractors to $250 annually from a single source (the law does not prohibit giving the gift, just receiving the gift). Although touted by the legislature as sweeping ethics reform, the new law has garnered significant attention not on what it covers, but what it does not cover.
First, the rules do not limit gifts from most individuals or groups. Only gifts from registered lobbyists, entities that retain or employ lobbyists, and government contractors are restricted. Personal gifts from corporate executives whose companies lobby state legislators or have government contracts are not affected. Notably, Governor McAuliffe’s Executive Order sweeps more broadly by barring gifts from lobbyists and the organizations that retain them, and limiting gifts from others.
Second, the $250 limit does not apply to “intangible gifts,” such as entertainment, hospitality, a ticket, admission, transportation, lodgings, and meals. Although many state ethics rules include exemptions allowing officials to participate in meetings, conferences, and other events at the expense of private parties, Virginia’s categorical exclusion of intangible gifts is unusually broad. As Robert McCartney of The Washington Post noted in his column, the advocacy group ProgressVA studied the issue and found that only 18 gifts out of 756 given during 2012 were tangible. In other words, the bill likely will have only a modest impact on gift-giving practices in Richmond. The law requires covered officials to disclose gifts from lobbyists, lobbyist principals, and government contractors (both tangible and intangible) given to officials and their family members.
Finally, keep in mind that contractors are also subject to a 2010 pay-to-play law that prohibits them from making campaign contributions or providing gifts valued more than $50 to the governor, the governor’s PAC, or certain executive branch officers if the value of a non-bid contract is $5 million or more.