September 9, 2014 / 4:15 PM / 4 years ago

Top Virginia lawmakers back stiffer ethics law after ex-governor's conviction

RICHMOND Va. (Reuters) - Two top Virginia state lawmakers on Tuesday backed stiffening ethics legislation, among the laxest in the United States, after the conviction of a former governor and his wife on corruption charges.

The support of William Howell, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates, and Thomas Norment Jr., the Republican majority leader of the state Senate, makes passage of stricter rules on gifts and favors for public officials more likely when the legislature reconvenes in four months.

The conviction last week of Republican former Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, in federal court on 20 corruption counts stunned Virginia. McDonnell was the first Virginia governor to be convicted of a crime.

“Virginia’s reputation has been tainted” by the McDonnell trial, Howell and Norment wrote in an opinion piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper.

They said they would take whatever extra steps were necessary to rebuild the public’s trust and confidence in government.

“We will re-examine every aspect of our ethics, transparency and disclosure laws ... and seek to enact reforms that are stronger and more stringent,” the legislators said.

Democrats have urged stronger ethics laws, with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring saying after the conviction that lawmakers needed “to turn off the spigot of gifts, tickets, and trips.”

Virginia’s ethics legislation, among the most lax in the United States, says that state officials, spouses and immediate family may not accept any “tangible” gift valued at more than $250.

The law puts no limits on gifts such as meals, transportation, vacations and trips, although officials are supposed to report them.

The McDonnells’ were charged with accepting $177,000 in lavish gifts and sweetheart loans from Jonnie Williams, the former chief executive of Star Scientific Inc, a dietary supplements firm, in exchange for promoting his company and its anti-inflammatory Anatabloc.

The McDonnells are to be sentenced in early January and could face decades in prison. Their attorneys say they will appeal.

A poll released on Tuesday by Christopher Newport University in Virginia found that 68 percent of 816 registered voters agreed with the guilty verdicts.

Reporting by Ian Simpson

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