Virginia’s 140 General Assembly lawmakers, like local and many other government officials, must file an annual form that discloses their economic interests.
The form requires them to list names of immediate family members, names of businesses that employ the lawmakers and their families, and stocks the lawmakers own, among other requirements. The forms are filed with the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council and put in an online database for anyone to view.
The deadline for lawmakers to file their new annual form was Feb 1. But there’s a glitch: The public cannot get the forms until a few days after the lawmakers are scheduled to leave Richmond, March 10, the last day of the General Assembly session.
That means that as lawmakers have been voting on bills and the budget, the public is in the blind about any businesses they have started, jobs they have taken or stocks they have purchased in the past year.
In previous years, the forms were released during the General Assembly sessions, which commence in January. But lawmakers pushed back a Dec. 15 filing deadline to Jan. 15 and then to the current Feb. 1.
The law says the state ethics council shall make the forms publicly available no later than six weeks after filing — and the executive director plans to wait until March 15, the end of the window, to release them.
So why did the General Assembly decide in 2017 to move the deadline back two weeks?
Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the House majority leader, is the point person on ethics for the House GOP. He said the intention was not to delay public release of the reports. Instead, the deadline was extended so lawmakers could have time to digest separate reports filed by lobbyists for anything that should also be reported on the forms filed by lawmakers.
Gilbert said he did not think the ethics council staff should wait six weeks to release the reports.
“I would personally encourage our ethics council staff to expeditiously review these filings to be released to the public as quickly as possible,” he said.
When asked earlier this month for access to the new lawmaker forms, Stewart Petoe, the executive director of the ethics council, replied that the forms will be released on March 15, “six weeks after the ending of the filing period, as stated in Virginia Code section 30-110.”
But that law only says the forms must be released within six weeks. It does not require release to happen at the end.
The law also requires the ethics council to review the reports and make redactions. And if a lawmaker has left anything out, the council will notify the lawmaker so the report can be amended before public release.
“It is to enable us to carry out these functions that Virginia Code section 30-110 allows the council up to six weeks after the end of the filing period to publicly release Statements and Disclosures,” Petoe said by email. “That is the schedule that we follow, and we release all the Statements and Disclosures at the same time to the general public.”
He said the Virginia Freedom of Information Act did not apply to the conflict forms.
And he said the council was not simply withholding lawmakers’ forms to be difficult.
“After the filing period ends, we are busy with reviewing the lists of filers, agency by agency, and board by board, to determine who has not filed, who has filed late, who should not have been required to file, who may be entitled to a deadline extension, etc.,” he said by email.
“We are required to provide a list of all late filers to the Attorney General’s Office for collection proceedings, and needless to say, we must make our list as accurate as possible. Roughly 10,000 individuals file with the council from throughout the state.”
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, a co-founder of the legislature’s Transparency Caucus, said a fix is needed.
“To me, it makes more sense to have these reports released before we go into session,” she said.