RD548 - Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council 2017 Annual Report
*This report was replaced in its entirety by the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council on February 16, 2018.
The Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council (the Council) held four meetings in 2017 on the following dates: April 24, July 18, October 17, and November 20.
At the April 24 meeting, the Council voted to approve the following Formal Advisory Opinion:
• 2017-F-001 Savings clause for quorums; § 2.2-3112
Pursuant to the requirements of subdivision 6 of § 30-356 of the Code of Virginia, this opinion has been published on the Council’s website (ethics.dls.virginia.gov).
Also at this meeting, the Council voted to amend its procedures for the issuance of Formal Advisory Opinions. It was clarified that if a requestor is asked for additional information, no opinion will be issued until the necessary information is provided. That portion of the Council’s procedures that were in conflict with subdivision 6 of § 30-356, in that it provided for drafts of Formal Advisory Opinions to be released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request prior to a formal vote by the Council, was repealed. The Council also voted to amend the Lobbyist’s Disclosure Statement form by adding an instruction to permit lobbyists to identify individuals listed in Schedule A as a “featured speaker, lecturer or presenter at the event," if applicable. The Council considered the subject matter of Formal Advisory Opinion 2016-F-004 PACs associated with a lobbyist’s principal; § 2.2-419, but did not recommend any changes or legislative proposals.
At the July 18 meeting, the Council voted to approve the following Formal Advisory Opinion:
• 2017-F-002 Applicability of Public Procurement Act (§ 2.2-4300 et seq.) exemptions to the statutes governing personal interests in contracts in the Conflict(s) of Interests Acts; §§ 2.2-3106, 2.2-3107, 2.2-3108, 2.2-3109, & 30-105
Also at this meeting, the Council considered the subject matter of Formal Advisory Opinion 2015-F-002 § 2.2-3115; Commission filers. The Council voted to withdraw that opinion and have it rewritten for consideration at the next Council meeting.
Lastly, the Council considered the issue of whether local officials who perform the duties of constitutional officers but who are not elected should file their disclosure forms with the Council or with their local clerks. The Council voted that these officials should file locally rather than with the Council.
At the October 18 meeting, the Council voted to approve the following revised Formal Advisory Opinion:
• 2015-F-002 Commission filers; § 2.2-3115
The Council also voted to approve the following Formal Advisory Opinions:
• 2017-F-004 Legislator reporting of an event; § 30-111
Also at this meeting, in response to a letter request from the Clerk of the Senate, the Council considered the subject matter of Senate Joint Resolution 29, which was introduced by Senator Adam P. Ebbin during the 2017 Regular Session of the General Assembly. After deliberation, the Council voted that local officials and employees should continue to file their disclosure forms locally instead of using the Council’s online filing system to file directly with the Council. The Council’s report on this issue has been published on the Legislative Information System website ( http://lis.virginia.gov) under Reports to the General Assembly as “RD453 – Report on the Study of Senate Joint Resolution 289 (2017)."
At the November 20 meeting, in response to a letter request from the Governor, the Council considered whether the General Assembly Statement of Economic Interests form should be changed, such that legislators would disclose all contracts with state and local agencies in which they have a personal interest. Currently, legislators disclose businesses and corporations in which they have a personal interest, but do not disclose the contracts that those entities have with state and local agencies. Another option, offered by the Governor’s Office, would be that if a legislator had a personal interest in a contract with a state or local agency, and the contract were permissible under a Virginia Procurement Act (§ 2.2-4300 et seq. of the Code of Virginia) exception listed in § 2.2-4344, the legislator would have to disclose the name of the agency that had the contract, provided that either he or someone with whom he had a close financial relationship provided the services that were related to the contract. After discussion, no motion was made on the issue of changing the form. It was agreed that the proper approach to this topic was to have the General Assembly consider the issue in the form of legislation.
The Council also approved a change in the instructions to the Lobbyist’s Disclosure Statement form, clarifying that on Schedule A, the expenses that are to be listed are those that are “provided to a legislative or executive official or a member of his immediate family," and not those that the lobbyist incurs for himself.
Pursuant to the directives of subdivision 13 of § 30-356, the Council considered five proposals for legislative changes that were presented by staff. After deliberation, the Council voted to recommend four of them and to not recommend one of them. A description of all five proposals begins on page 9 of this report.
The Council also considered two additional legislative proposals. The first was that the restriction on relatives of school board members being employed by the same school board should be identical to the restriction applicable to other local public bodies. The Council voted to approve this proposal. The second was that all discussions of budget matters during the course of a fiscal year should be considered as one transaction, meaning that if an official has a personal interest in some item of the budget, he will have to make an official declaration of his personal interest only at the very first meeting where the budget is involved, not at multiple meetings throughout the year whenever the budget is discussed. The Council voted to not approve this proposal.
Lastly, the Council discussed the advisability of reviewing the Conflict(s) of Interests Acts in toto, to identify those portions of the Acts that should be substantially amended, those that should be rewritten for clarity, and those that should be retained in their present form. Recognizing that such an undertaking likely would be a two-year project and would require careful preparation, the Council voted to approve this idea as a worthwhile endeavor for the Council to undertake in the future.
Formal Advisory Opinions and Informal Advice
As noted above, in 2017 the Council formally approved four new Formal Advisory Opinions, and it withdrew and reissued a Formal Advisory Opinion from 2015. Pursuant to the requirements of subdivision 6 of § 30-356, these opinions have been published on the Council’s website ( http://ethics.dls.virginia.gov).
Throughout the course of the year, Council staff answered in excess of 3,100 phone calls and responded to more than 5,400 email inquiries for informal advice. Council staff responses included the following range of assistance: help with filling out disclosure forms, guidance as to whether particular gifts could be lawfully accepted and how they should be reported, and responses to conflict-of-interest questions, such as whether it would be lawful for a person to vote on a particular matter or for a family member to submit a bid for a particular contract. Pursuant to subdivision 6 of § 30-356, all informal advice provided by the Council is confidential.
Training Seminars and Educational Programs
Pursuant to subdivision 7 of § 30-356, the Council is directed to conduct training seminars and education programs for lobbyists, state and local government officers and employees, legislators, and other interested persons on the subject of Virginia’s lobbying laws and the Conflict(s) of Interests Acts. In 2017, Council staff conducted 25 training seminars, both in Richmond and throughout the state. The groups and organizations for which training was provided included:
The Judicial Conference of Virginia for District Court Judges
It is anticipated that the number of trainings requested for next year will be higher, reflective of the election cycle and corresponding terms of offices in Virginia.
In addition to in-person trainings and seminars, the Council has also developed online training, accessible on the Council’s website, for lobbyists, legislators, and state and local government officials and employees. The contents of the online training will be revised and updated to reflect changes to Virginia’s laws made during the 2018 Regular Session of the General Assembly that will become effective on July 1, 2018.
Disclosure and Registration Filings
The Council receives disclosure filings from all members of the General Assembly, all district and circuit court judges, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Attorney General, all constitutional officers, and all state officers and employees who are required to file. Executive branch board appointees are also required to file their Financial Disclosure Statements with the Council. The total number of individuals in Virginia who filed directly with the Council in 2017 was approximately 11,000. In addition, the Council also received 2,195 lobbyist registrations and approximately the same number of lobbyist disclosure reports. All disclosures and registrations filed with the Council are submitted electronically, using the Council’s online filing system.