For government to be effective, citizens must have faith in their leaders and their leaders’ integrity. That faith can be easily undermined if the public perceives that elected officials are unduly influenced by money and special interests. Until recently, Virginia has largely escaped this criticism. It has become clear, however, that changes are necessary to restore public trust lost due to recent events.
Consequently, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been working to review and revise Virginia’s ethics, transparency and disclosure laws. At a press conference today in Richmond, we will announce a bipartisan agreement on a series of comprehensive reforms that will increase accountability, promote greater transparency and preserve the integrity of state government and those who serve the citizens of our commonwealth. While we recognize the difficulty in legislating ethical behavior among elected officials, we believe it is important to set clear standards of conduct that the public can understand, and that we should sanction those who violate the public trust. The citizens of Virginia demand nothing less.
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While the events of recent months have brought these issues to the forefront of public debate, the reforms we seek have a much greater purpose. There is a bipartisan understanding of the need to preserve trust in government. This issue goes far beyond Republican or Democrat and far beyond the actions of any one individual. The citizens of the commonwealth must know without hesitation or qualification that their elected leaders can be trusted to execute their duties with the highest degree of integrity and virtue.
During the 2014 session of the General Assembly, we will propose the following series of comprehensive reforms to Virginia’s disclosure and transparency laws. These changes are intended to strengthen our system by increasing accountability and promoting greater transparency.
First, we will propose a ban on the solicitation of gifts and a $250 cap on the value of gifts that elected officials may accept from lobbyists and individuals with business before the commonwealth. Other items associated with the performance of official duties will not be subject to this cap, but will still be subject to stringent reporting requirements. Even if not intentional, excessive or valuable gifts can create the appearance of impropriety and undermine the public’s trust. These reforms will safeguard that trust.
Second, we will propose the establishment of a State Ethics Advisory Commission. This commission, composed of legislator and citizen appointees, will be the new umbrella organization tasked with overseeing major aspects of Virginia’s disclosure system.
It will review financial disclosure forms and maintain an online website where citizens can review these forms. It will offer advice to individuals covered under Virginia’s Conflict of Interests Act, similar to how the Freedom of Information Act Council successfully operates today. It will issue advisory opinions on matters related to transparency and disclosure and serve as the General Assembly’s official study group on ethics, transparency and disclosure matters.
Third, we will seek a number of reforms to modernize our disclosure system and promote greater transparency. We will require gifts given to immediate family members be reported and clarify definitions related to gift-giving from personal friends. We will require elected officials to file financial disclosures twice annually and synchronize filing deadlines for lobbyists and lawmakers. We will also clarify important definitions and require more specificity and completeness on these forms. The State Ethics Advisory Commission will also conduct an annual review of this system so that the General Assembly can provide further updates and clarifications in the years ahead.
Fourth, we will work to increase accountability by instituting intensive, mandatory training requirements. The State Ethics Advisory Commission will provide training for elected officials, who will be required to update their training in accordance with their re-election, similar to how lawyers are required to take “continuing legal education” training. This training will ensure that elected officials are fully apprised of Virginia’s disclosure and ethics laws.
In crafting these changes, we have sought to provide greater accountability, consistent with the traditional Virginia approach of emphasizing transparency and disclosure. We believe these reforms significantly strengthen our financial disclosure system, while maintaining a commitment to the tradition and spirit of the transparency first approach.
This comprehensive package of legislative reforms represents a bipartisan agreement among leaders of both parties in Richmond about what we should do immediately. We recognize, however, that certain nuances will be refined throughout the legislative process.
It is our aim with this agreement to demonstrate that Richmond continues to be very different from Washington. As leaders of our respective parties, we often find ourselves at odds, but unlike Washington, we feel it important to break through the partisan gridlock to get things done. We hope our colleagues in the General Assembly will review these proposals carefully, and that they, as well as the public, can embrace them.
Kirk Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, is the House majority leader; contact him at
David Toscano, a Democrat from Charlottesville, is the House minority leader; contact him at