Virginia Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudoun), the Democratic candidate for attorney general, released an ethics reform proposal Wednesday to strengthen disclosure and conflict of interest laws for elected officials.
Herring’s policy proposal, “Restoring Integrity to State Government,” would establish an independent ethics commission and set $100 limits on gifts to public officials and their immediate family members.
Virginia currently allows elected officials to accept unlimited gifts, but they have to disclose those over $50.
Herring unveiled the proposal in the wake of the gift scandal surrounding Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family, who accepted tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from Jonnie Williams, chief executive officer at supplement company Star Scientific.
Williams gave the McDonnells approximately $150,000 in loans and gifts, most of which the family has repaid and returned under heightened public scrutiny.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, Republican candidate for governor, also accepted about $18,000 in gifts from Williams, but says he has no intention of returning them.
Herring said Cuccinelli and McDonnell had “failed Virginia” and its residents.
“They have tarnished our state’s reputation,” he said during a call with the media.
Herring said the Commonwealth’s ethics laws were too relaxed and easy to skirt.
“We need a change in Virginia’s ethics laws,” he said. “Ken Cuccinelli and Bob McDonnell have shown we can’t expect everyone to do the right thing. We can’t legislate honesty, but we can make it harder and more costly to violate ethics rules.”
Herring’s proposal would establish a commission of elected officials with broad authority to implement and enforce Virginia’s ethics regulations. Herring said a review of the ethics laws and suggestions for changes and enhancements would be the commission’s first order of business.
Herring also wants to prohibit gifts to officials and their families from lobbyists; prohibit the use of campaign donations for personal expenses; mandate full disclosure of corporate loans; and require that all disclosures be posted online in one place within 10 days.
“They’re available to the public now but it needs to be simpler,” Herring said.
The proposal would strengthen penalties for those who knowingly violate campaign finance disclosure laws from a Class 1 misdemeanor to a felony.
Herring said he would likely wait until the General Assembly reconvenes in January to introduce the proposal, as opposed to calling a special session.
“First we need to finish the investigation into how deep the relationship between Bob McDonnell, Ken Cuccinelli and Jonnie Williams is, so we’re confident that the reforms we’re making are comprehensive,” Herring said. “What we need to do is continue to push this issue of ethics reform throughout the campaign so there will be the political will in January to pass it.”
Cuccinelli has called on Gov. Bob McDonnell to convene a special session on ethics reform but received tepid response from legislators.
Both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have released their own ethics proposals in light of the investigation.