Stateline Story

Perks Plentiful For Virginia Lawmakers, Students Find

  • March 12, 2001
  • By Greg McDonald

Gift giving and taking is alive and well in the Virginia General Assembly, despite various ethics rules and other guidelines designed to prevent political conflicts of interest, a study conducted by undergraduate journalism students at Virginia Commonwealth University has found. The Richmond-based Philip Morris Corporation was the biggest donor, giving lawmakers nearly $26,000 in gifts, golf balls and other goodies. 

In general, students in the School of Mass Communications found that lawmakers publicly reported $118,000 in gifts last year. The biggest donor was the Philip Morris Corporation, which gave lawmakers nearly $26,000 in trips, golf balls and other goodies.

The trips included several New York jaunts to see Broadway shows and hunting trips to Canada, Georgia and Texas. Members of the legislature were also given tickets to ball games, NASCAR races and other sources of entertainment.

The student investigation found that female legislators received less than their male counterparts. While the taking of gifts was not illegal, the aspiring journalists found that at least 10 lawmakers turned down gifts or donated them to charity to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

Jeff South, an associate professor who guided the project, said students learned that "computer-assisted analytical reporting can often complement anecdotal reporting."

South said his students may have a ways to go before they become the kind of hardened, cynical journalists who cover lawmakers on a daily basis. He said some students were surprised to find legislators willing to accept so much with such ease.

"We were all shocked to find these hunting trips," South said. "We had no idea, and the trips were described simply as "events" so we had to do some digging around to find out what they really were."