For the first time since the McDonnell gifts scandal, Virginia lawmakers reported an increase in the gifts and paid travel they accepted in 2018, according to data published Friday by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
Despite the spike, the amounts are still far lower than in the pre-McDonnell era, when lawmakers routinely took lobbyist-paid trips to Washington Redskins games, hunting properties in Canada or the Masters golf tournament.
The total value of gifts and paid conferences lawmakers had reported had dropped each year since 2013, falling to $77,000 in 2017 before rising to $132,000 in 2018, according to VPAP, which published data lawmakers are required to provide once a year in economic interest statements.
Then-Gov. Bob McDonnell’s scandal, involving off-the-books gifts, loans and vacations paid for by a businessman, broke in 2013, the last full year of his term. McDonnell was convicted of public corruption in 2014 before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his convictions in 2016.
Public pressure prompted state lawmakers to change the law to rein in the type and amount of gifts they could accept. Today, many state legislators don’t accept any gifts.
However, lawmakers aren’t required to report food and drink consumed during undefined “official duties.”
Several foreign trips helped boost the 2018 numbers.
Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, led the list of lawmakers in gifts and paid conferences, reporting $15,191 — most of which came from a September trip to South Korea paid for by the South Korean government.
“Many of my constituents are Korean, and over the years I’ve worked on important issues related to their concerns,” Hugo said in a text message. “The South Korean government has been asking me to visit for a number of years; this year I accepted.”
Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, reported $10,257 in gifts and paid conferences, the bulk of which came from a July trip to Taiwan that was paid for by the Taiwanese government.
“I participated in the trip to Taiwan as a representative for Virginia regarding state relations and trade,” Reeves said in a statement. “There were also delegations from West Virginia and Maryland that attended.”
Dels. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, and Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, also went on the Taiwan trip.
Aird said it was a result of successful legislation she sponsored with Morefield in 2018 that allows for tax incentives for companies that relocate to distressed areas.
“This was a really exciting trip that came as a result of my legislation with Will Morefield,” Aird said. “It was really like an economic development trip to meet with their major industries” and discuss mutual needs.
Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, attended energy conferences in Washington state and Washington, D.C., covered by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Jacobin magazine, which says it offers “socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture,” paid for Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, to take a trip to a conference in Liverpool, England.