Newly Scrupulous Legislators Reporting Fewer Gifts

The giving of gifts to members of the General Assembly — or perhaps I should say the acceptance of them — has declined precipitously since 2013 when former Governor Bob McDonnell was indicted in a scandal best remembered by favor-seeker Jonnie Williams paying for his daughter’s wedding reception. Although McDonnell was ultimately cleared by U.S. Supreme Court of breaking the law, his political career was finished. Lawmakers took note. The graph above shows the declining value of gifts reported by legislators, courtesy of the Virginia Public Access Project based on the latest public filings.

The most dramatic drop occurred in the category of “gift items” — objects of value — followed by invitations to sporting events and hunting, fishing and outdoor activities. Even “meals/receptions” were down sharply, which I find surprising, for that would be one category the acceptance of which could be defensible. If you’re an elected official, it’s one thing to attend a UVa basketball game or a theatrical production, true diversions, and quite another to go to dinner or a reception, during which you spend the whole time talking to lobbyists — not much different from your day job.

Be that as it may, all such gifts are down sharply.

Another VPAP infographic shows the breakdown of gifts between Republicans and Democrats. The largesse flows heavily in the favor of Democrats. The imbalance would be even more pronounced if one took into consideration the fact that Republicans are more numerous, especially in the House, than Democrats. It’s hard to know what to make of this, though. My hunch is that Republicans, scalded by the example of McDonnell, a fellow Republican, are more acutely worried about how gifts might be perceived by the public than Democrats are.

All told, says VPAP, fewer than half of the 140 General Assembly members accepted meals, gala tickets or other gifts valued at more than $50 in the last eight months of 2016. Whatever the gifts and whatever the party affiliation, that’s a big improvement. Let’s hope legislators’ new-found scruples reflect lasting lessons learned.

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6 responses to “Newly Scrupulous Legislators Reporting Fewer Gifts”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    maybe more to this …. if you look at other money from Corporations

    Legislators whose campaigns have received more than $50,000 from Dominion (lifetime)

    Recipient Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion
    (2nd number is this year):

    Sen. Saslaw D 35 NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
    Del. Kilgore R 1 Southwest 162,000 35,000
    Sen. Deeds D 25 Piedmont 109,700 1,500
    Sen. Norment R 3 Middle Peninsula/Tidewater 107,740 21,500
    Del. Cox* R 66 Central 90,799 29,099
    Sen. Wagner R 7 Tidewater 79,735 26,885
    Del. Plum** D 36 NoVa 78,750 4,000
    Del. Hugo R 40 NoVa 54,400 11,000
    Sen. Obenshain R 26 Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000

    Dominion donations to Commerce and Labor Committee members


    Senator Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 election cycle
    Wagner (Chair) R 7 Tidewater 81,985 26,885
    Saslaw (former Chair, Minority Leader) D 35 NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
    Norment R 3 Middle Peninsula to Tidewater 107,740 21,500
    Newman R 23 Roanoke area 20,500 3,000
    Obenshain R 26 Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000
    Stuart R 28 Fredericksburg area 20,750 6,000
    Stanley R 20 Southside 19,500 9,000
    Cosgrove R 14 Tidewater 7,000 2,000
    Chafin R 38 Southwest 10,500 6,500
    Dance D 16 Central 25,692 9,000
    Lucas D 18 Tidewater 31,950 5,200
    McDougle R 4 Central 47,250 10,000
    Black R 13 NoVa (outer suburbs) 9,750 1,000
    Sturtevant* R 10 Central 4,000 —
    Spruill D 5 Tidewater 35,419 4,200

    1. djrippert Avatar


      Don’t you wonder why Saslaw gets all that money from Dominion? He wins re-election every time by huge margins. Realistically speaking, he can run a re-election campaign with 10% of the money he raises and still win.

      Dominion is making Saslaw a king-maker. Look at the Saslaw for Senate accounting. Money pours in and Saslaw doles it out. If you’re in a competitive election and you want to get elected or re-elected you’d better do what Ole Tricky Dick says or … no money. And if you want funds for the upcoming election you’d better vote the way Tricky Dick tells you to vote.

      Since Saslaw is bulletproof in his own district Dominion he can funnel money to all kinds of Democratic candidates without the people voting for those candidates knowing that their pol is in Dominion’s pocket through Saslaw.

      All of this happens because Virginia is one of the very few US states that place no limits on campaign contributions (I think one of only five). Then, a campaign contribution to a candidate can be bundled up and sent out to other candidates making VPAP virtually useless.

      Virginia’s state government – Bought and paid for by special interests.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    There are many legislators who refuse all gifts, even the cheap ones, but that chart may merely reflect fewer gifts that have values that exceed the reporting threshold. The reporting limit tail wags the dog. The whole exercise is based on a false premise that gifts and entertainment drive outcomes, when in reality most legislators agree with Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh and can accept things of value yet still vote against the donors if they have good reason to. Most of the gifts floating around during session are minor, intended to build name identification, and the most popular are often food (which we lobbyists also consume!)

    Larry (and Ivy Main) are right that campaign donations can have a greater impact but if somebody sets out to build or buy influence at the General Assembly it will be the totality of the effort that makes it effective: campaign dollars plus gifts and entertainment plus strategic charitable activities plus a strong lobbying effort plus a background of public relations goodwill (a perception you are among the good guys.) Oh, and sponsoring a blog doesn’t hurt.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    The trick will be to see how this new-found purity lasts. Virginia got a huge blackeye with the McDonnell scandal. I covered it for Bloomberg News and was told that the number of global hits, especially from places like Hong Kong, was really impressive. Despite the Supreme Court outcome, the story had greed, hubris, implied sex and phoniness. Readers sensed that Virginia was playing all this gentlemanly “cavalier” crap and got it shoved back at them during the trial. Virginia still has among the most lax ethics laws in the country. That part hasn’t changed.

    Let’s check back in a couple of years.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    The gift thing is a joke… it’s a shiny object to divert from the big bucks they are getting from corporate donations.

    did I say joke? how about a cynical joke?

    the thing is.. it looks like someone in the GA is doing a PR effort on this and RTD is apparently falling all over itself to promote it.

  5. Thank you for another article I am going to use to ask questions of the Virginia legislators.

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