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In Wake of McDonnell Scandal, Transparency Bill Aims to Limit Gifts, Increase Disclosure

Bill by Northern Virginia Democrat would create a searchable online database for gifts and economic interest disclosures for local, state officials and employees.

In Wake of McDonnell Scandal, Transparency Bill Aims to Limit Gifts, Increase Disclosure

In an effort to bring more sunshine to the Old Dominion, state Del. Rob Krupicka has crafted legislation that would limit the amounts of gifts local and state officials could accept and require regular disclosures in a searchable, online database.

It's part of what Krupicka expects to be a larger, bi-partisan move toward ethics reform in Virginia sparked in no small part by the Star Scientific scandal involving outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Krupicka's bill would require lawmakers and local elected officials, along with state and local government officers and employees, to electronically file a monthly gifts reports and quarterly economic interest reports. The reports would be available to the public in a searchable online database maintained by the Secretary of the Commonwealth's Office.

Further, the legislation would prevent any state or local officer or employee from accepting a single gift worth more than $100 or a combination of gifts with a total value of more than $500 from a single donor within a single filing period.

"I think this transparency issue is important. I think the ability of people and the press to have access to these filings is important. And I want really press that point and focus on that point, because not everyone is," Krupicka, an Alexandria Democrat whose district also includes parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties, told Patch.

"Our current gift disclosures and financial disclosures are not as easy to access as they should be, especially in this modern area."

Virginia law currently requires only state officers and employees to file annual economic interest forms with the Secretary of the Commonwealth's Office. Local government officers and employees file such forms with their city, town or county clerk. State senators file with the Senate clerk and state delegates file with the House clerk.

Essentially, a member of the public or the press has to go to each clerk to request access to those forms.

"Technology has changed, and we need to catch this system up to the level of technology," Krupicka said.

In 2012, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Virginia the fourth-worst state in terms of open government and anti-corruption laws. It gave Virginia an 'F' in nine out of 14 categories, including public access to information and ethics enforcement.

This year, McDonnell was forced to return more than $120,000 in loans and gifts to the chief executive of Star Scientific Inc., a dietary supplement company. And the outgoing governor leaves office the subject of state and federal investigations.

This summer, Krupicka launched VAEthicsReformNow.com, which allows people to petition for ethics reform in Virginia.

He predicted some of the debate on his bill would center on whether food counts as a gift. Krupicka said it should: "I want to know whether you get a Rolex watch, a filet mignon or a cheeseburger."

The bill, if it becomes law, could require a cultural shift, too.

In 2012, Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman came under fire in a minor political spat that had more to do with a planned streetcar for Columbia Pike than whether a two-day consulting gig he did for a company in Canada constituted a conflict of interest. Zimmerman disclosed the work in advance to his fellow elected officials and the county clerk, but the public at large only found out about it after streetcar opponent Libby Garvey tried to use it against him.

When Patch asked board members at the time why the county didn't make the matter known publicly ahead of the controversy, the answer was simply, "We've never done it that way."

"It's just never been the practice," Krupicka said. "We live in a different age now. The level of privacy that public officials can expect is different than it used to be. We have to acknowledge that and move forward with those times."

For elected officials and public employees comfortable with computers, the new rules could make reporting gifts easier, he said.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared Jan. 1, 2014.

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