Ethics bill aims to reform FOIA again

Capital News Service
Capital News Service

By Quinn Casteel
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Among the flurry of ethics reform bills being proposed throughout the Virginia General Assembly is Senate Bill 212, which would remove Freedom of Information Act exemptions for legislators and their aides.  

The new FOIA bill, which is part of an ethics package authored by Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, would remove Del. Tag Greason’s, R-Potomac Falls, House Bill 1639 less than a year after its approval.

HB 1639 is also known as the 2013 General Assembly FOIA Exemption Act. The measure officially added legislative aides to the exemption list of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

Currently, General Assembly members and legislatives aides are exempt from Virginia’s FOIA act, which means their working papers and written correspondence are unattainable for public viewing. Petersen said SB 212 would increase accountability in the Virginia legislature.

“We need as much transparency as possible, and then people can make up their own minds,” Petersen said. “[FOIA] has an incredible influence on people because it makes you realize, ‘Hey I’m under scrutiny at all times.’ ”

House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, announced a bipartisan agreement pushing forward a plan for ethics reform. This proposed legislation follows a financial controversy surrounding former Republican Gov. Robert R. McDonnell.

“The [FOIA] exemption has been broadly interpreted, and it’s now used for everything,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “Anything that narrows that scope and keeps things in check is a good thing.”

Del. Luke E. Torian, D-Woodbridge, patrons House Bill 689, which would require legislators and lobbyists to file financial disclosure reports semiannually rather than annually. Along with the rest of the ethics legislation, the bill’s stated goal is to prevent another controversy by aiming for more government transparency.

“We just simply want to let the citizens of the commonwealth know that we’re operating with a tremendous level of integrity,” said Torian, one of an increasingly large group of bipartisan House members involved in ethics reform.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe was sworn in as governor this past week, while McDonnell faces federal and state investigations regarding gifts received while in office. The Justice Department said in December a decision for or against indicting McDonnell could come as late as February.

Petersen said in the current culture there is a symbiotic relationship between donors and politicians.

“It may be that way in every government, but I think right now it’s more pronounced in Virginia because you have unlimited gifts, unlimited donations and the transparency is minimal,” Petersen said. “It’s all self-reporting.”

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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