RICHMOND, Va. — About one in five Virginia legislators list having at least $50,000 in personal debt besides a mortgage, an analysis of financial disclosure forms by The Associated Press has found.
But state's ethics laws don't currently require lawmakers to offer much detail about the debts. That means the public wouldn't be able to tell if an elected official has a mountain of credit card bills similar to what prosecutors suggested helped drive former Gov. Bob McDonnell into taking bribes from a smooth-talking vitamin salesman.
McDonnell entered office in 2010 with $75,000 in credit card debt, information that only became public last year during his corruption trial. On the personal financial form McDonnell signed right before taking office, he was only required to list that he owed more than $50,000 to "Banks."
That's the same standard lawmakers had to use on their most recent financial disclosures filed in December.
But more transparency may be coming. Leaders in both the House and the Senate, who are currently working on a final ethics reform package to be approved before the end of the 2015 legislative session, have said they want a new ethics advisory council to come up with new forms that are more transparent about a lawmaker's personal finances.
"There is a lack of specificity in the forms that I would like to see improved," said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County.
Gilbert noted that lawmakers tighten up some disclosure requirements related to personal debts last year — lawmakers now how to give the names of any individuals they owe money to. But Gilbert said the disclosure forms remain a "work in progress."
Whether state lawmakers will ultimately accept having to disclose more information about their personal financial situation is unclear.
Several senators have complained bitterly this session about having to pass what they said is unnecessary ethics legislation in order to avoid being mistreated by the media. And most lawmakers with debts over $50,000 did not respond to requests from the AP for more detail about those debts.
"Give me yours and I'll give you mine," Del. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, said to a reporter in response to a question about the more than $50,000 Spruill listed owing to "Banks."
Others were happy to provide more detail. Hopewell Republican Del. Riley Ingram said his debt — also listed as more than $50,000 to "Banks" on his most recent disclosure form — is a $450,000 unsecured line of credit he uses for real estate investments.
Some lawmakers who have debt also list having a vast portfolio of stocks and real estate investments; others list having few assets.
Political corruption cases often involve politicians with serious personal financial problems, and prosecutors focused on the McDonnell's finance woes at trial last year. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in September of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from vitamin salesman Jonnie Williams. Both McDonnells are appealing their convictions.
Disclosure has long been the guiding ethos of Virginia's ethics rules. Lawmakers can take in unlimited campaign contributions, and, until last year, unlimited gifts as long as they are disclosed.
But the forms lawmakers have to fill out in Virginia are short on details compared to what federal lawmakers have to make public.
Consider the disclosures of U.S. House Rep. Barbara Comstock, who was a state delegate from Northern Virginia before winning election to Congress last year.
On a federal financial disclosure form filed in early 2014, Comstock disclosed debts of between $120,000 and $315,000. The forms required her to list the name of each creditor, the type of debt, a date of when each debt occurred and a range of how much each debt was. Comstock listed multiple credit card debts, student loans and a loan against a retirement account.
But in a state disclosure form filed around the same time, Comstock's form shows only that she had more than $50,000 in student loan debt and between $10,000 and $50,000 in debt to "insurance companies."
There's no indication on Comstock's state form of any credit card debt. Jeff Marschner, a spokesman for Comstock, said "the box was checked wrong," and that Comstock will file an amended report.
The AP's analysis of state lawmakers' forms also found that nearly half of all legislators or their immediate family members in both chambers carry at least $5,000 in personal debt besides mortgages, the vast majority of which is to unnamed institutional creditors.
A small number of lawmakers voluntarily disclosed more information about their debts than is required.
Loudon County Republican Del. Tag Greason, for instance, details on his disclosure form that he has a car loan worth between $5,000 and $50,000. He said he wanted his constituents to know he didn't owe money on something like a high-interest pay day loan.
"I thought it was important to make that distinction," Greason said.
Alan Suderman can be reached at www.twitter.com/AlanSuderman.