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Virginia state Sen. Bryce Reeves accepted a $1.9K trip from a 'skill games' company. No one will explain it.

In the summer of 2022, Virginia state Sen. Bryce Reeves disclosed on a campaign finance report that "skill games" company Pace-O-Matic had paid for a trip he took worth $1,900.

On July 23, the date the Orange County Republican listed for the travel, Pace-O-Matic was hosting hundreds of guests in Wyoming at Cheyenne Frontier Days, a multi-day festival of bull riding, horse roping, food and music billed as “the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and western celebration.”

A photo gallery on Pace-O-Matic’s Facebook page appears to show Reeves at the event, posing for a picture with company executives and others decked out in cowboy hats, boots and western attire.

But the campaign finance paperwork gave no indication where Reeves went on the dime of a company that has extensively lobbied the General Assembly for permission to put slot machine lookalikes in convenience stores and truck stops around Virginia.

Despite the disclosure of the $1,900 expense, neither Reeves nor Pace-O-Matic will confirm the money was, in fact, connected to the Wyoming rodeo. Reeves, who chairs a General Assembly subcommittee on gambling regulation, has refused to answer specific questions, saying only that he followed all Virginia laws.

“I have fully complied with all of Virginia’s financial disclosure laws, both as it pertains to my service in the General Assembly and required campaign finance disclosures,” Reeves said in an email.

The senator also claimed the Virginia Mercury had been “harassing” his staff by calling and emailing his legislative office seeking information for this story.

In the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s gifts scandal a decade ago, Virginia policymakers set caps on how much travel, entertainment, meals and hospitality public officials can accept from lobbyists and companies hoping to influence them. McDonnell and his family accepted more than $177,000 in gifts, loans and trips from a businessman looking to promote his company’s dietary supplement, but the former governor was ultimately cleared of criminal charges.

Under the current rule, General Assembly members can’t accept more than $108 in gifts from any single lobbying interest per calendar year, but there are several exceptions to that limit. Legislators can accept lobbyist-funded travel above the cap, but only if they receive a waiver from the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, show there’s a “reasonable relationship” to their official duties and disclose the trip to the public.

The Pace-O-Matic travel mystery highlights the continued looseness of Virginia’s ethics and campaign finance laws. Reeves reported the travel as an in-kind donation to his campaign, putting it in the realm of Virginia’s uncapped campaign finance system instead of treating it as a lobbying gift that could be subject to the $108 limit.

The company also would not explain what the $1,900 travel contribution to Reeves was for.

“With regards to any elected official attending Cheyenne Frontier Days, Pace-O-Matic complied with all applicable laws and reporting requirements,” said Pace-O-Matic spokesman Michael Barley.

‘The Daddy of ‘em all’

Pace-O-Matic, which operates skill games in Wyoming under its Cowboy Skill brand, is a major sponsor for the rodeo event, nicknamed “the Daddy of em’ all.”

Company leaders have described the annual trips to Cheyenne as a showcase for their business as well as the state of Wyoming. Pace-O-Matic provides guests with hotel stays, dining, shopping trips and concert tickets, according to a write-up on the company’s Cowboy Skill website, as well as “exclusive discounts at select Cheyenne merchants, particularly those in support of our skill games.”

Reeves, who chairs a General Assembly subcommittee on gambling regulation, recently voted for a major bill to repeal Virginia’s ban on skill games, legislation that would allow Pace-O-Matic to continue operating in the state and reverse the legislature’s previous decision to declare the machines a form of illegal gambling. Reeves also voted in favor of an unusual procedural move to bypass Virginia Senate rules and prevent the skill game legalization bill from being vetted by the committee that handles gambling issues.

Pace-O-Matic and its supporters say skill games have been a lifeline for small business owners in Virginia who get a cut of the machines’ profits, and many lawmakers say they’ve been swayed by the stories of immigrant convenience store owners who feel they’re being denied a fair shot at participating in the state’s growing gambling industry. Despite the emphasis on small business, some skill game industry critics contend the General Assembly is giving overly friendly treatment to a well-connected gambling interest that makes its money at the expense of regular Virginians who play the machines.

The skill game legalization bill passed the General Assembly in early March and is now under review by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who is facing dueling public advocacy campaigns to sign or veto the proposal by his April 8 deadline to act. The governor can also suggest amendments to the bill, which would be considered by the legislature when it returns to Richmond April 17.

As Pace-O-Matic was pushing for the bill during the General Assembly session, Reeves unexpectedly showed up to a Feb. 29 meeting the company had scheduled with the governor’s staff, according to a Youngkin administration official. Pace-O-Matic wouldn’t comment when asked if the company invited Reeves to the meeting, but his attendance indicates the company sees him as a key legislative ally.

Though Pace-O-Matic has become a major donor to Virginia politicians on both sides of the aisle, the $1,900 in question is the only time a General Assembly member has reported receiving donated travel from the company, according to campaign finance data from the Virginia Public Access Project.

Campaign donations “properly received and reported” are excluded from the state’s gift definition, according to Virginia law. Neither Reeves nor Pace-O-Matic offered any information on how the travel was related to the senator’s campaign.

Pennsylvania lawmakers disclosed Pace-O-Matic gifts and travel

Outside Virginia, Pace-O-Matic’s 2022 Wyoming trip was reported under ethics and lobbying laws, not as a campaign donation.

Several Pennsylvania lawmakers attended the event at Pace-O-Matic’s invitation in 2022, according to reporting by Spotlight PA, and the company later disclosed spending thousands of dollars on travel and hospitality for Pennsylvania officials that year. Unlike Virginia, Pennsylvania prohibits corporations from contributing to political candidates, whether directly or through in-kind donations.

Former Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Helm reported receiving roughly $2,252 in transportation, lodging and hospitality from Pace-O-Matic, according to a financial statement filed with her state’s ethics commission. Current Pennsylvania Rep. Jeff Wheeland reported $4,926 in travel, lodging and hospitality from Pace-O-Matic in 2022.

The gift disclosures for Pennsylvania legislators show they received passes to Cheyenne Frontier Days events valued at $367 per person.

In Pennsylvania, Pace-O-Matic reported spending more than $8,000 on gifts, hospitality, lodging and travel for state officials and their families from July through September of 2022.

In Virginia, Pace-O-Matic lobbyists reported spending $0 on gifts to public officials in all of 2022.

Pace-O-Matic representatives would not explain why company-funded travel for lawmakers seemed to be treated differently in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Unanswered questions about 2023

Pace-O-Matic’s Virginia lobbyists have not yet filed disclosure forms for 2023, and company representatives have refused to answer questions about whether any Virginia lawmakers went to Wyoming in 2023 in addition to 2022.

After the Mercury inquired about two photos that appear to show Reeves and Senate Minority Leader Ryan McDougle, a Hanover Republican, sitting together among the 2023 guests, those photos disappeared from Pace-O-Matic’s Facebook page.

Reeves, who didn’t report any gifts or travel from Pace-O-Matic for 2023, did not comment on whether he went to Wyoming in 2023. In a statement, McDougle confirmed he was in Wyoming but said he paid for the trip himself.

“I was in Wyoming for less than 24 hours in the summer of 2023,” McDougle said. “I incurred the expenses related to that trip.”

Former Virginia public safety secretary Brian Moran, now a lobbyist for Pace-O-Matic who confirmed he was in Wyoming for part of the 2023 event, wouldn’t give a yes or no answer when asked whether Reeves and McDougle attended.

“I will not speak to whether or not members of the General Assembly were there,” Moran said when approached by a reporter at a recent skill game rally on Capitol Square.

The disclosure rules for lobbying-related travel don’t apply if lawmakers cover their own expenses and refuse free goods and services. Reeves reporting the 2022 travel as an in-kind donation suggests neither he nor his campaign paid for it.

Reeves didn’t report any donated travel from Pace-O-Matic in 2023. In July of 2023, he paid himself $8,320 from his campaign account as reimbursement for “travel expenses/flight,” but there’s no other indication of what that money was for.

A blurry line between gifts and in-kind donations

Reeves might have considered the Pace-O-Matic travel part of his campaign because it could help him with fundraising, but he didn’t appear to receive any donations directly connected to the trip. Pace-O-Matic has given Reeves $31,900 in state campaign contributions, according to VPAP, but the $1,900 travel expense was the only contribution the senator reported from the company in 2022. Apart from the travel donation, Reeves reported just one other contribution of more than $100 in July of 2022. It came from a Virginia businessman who worked in the wine industry.

On July 23 of 2022, the same date as the travel disclosure, Reeves gave $500 from his campaign account to a Cheyenne Republican’s campaign for the Wyoming statehouse, according to his campaign finance report.

It’s unclear if Reeves giving money to a Wyoming politician is the reason his travel was categorized as campaign related, or if simply spending time with a major donor can be considered campaign activity due to the potential for future donations. Reeves, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Pace-O-Matic money in the legislature, received $10,000 in campaign donations from the company in January of 2023.

Virginia law defines campaign contributions, including in-kind donations, as anything of value given to a candidate or a campaign “for the purpose of expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.” Reeves didn’t have a state Senate race in 2022, and he had just lost a GOP congressional primary in June to Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega.

The state puts no limits on campaign donations from lobbyists, including direct money contributions. Such contributions do not count as gifts subject to the ethics cap.

The line between in-kind donations and gifts is blurrier.

Because Virginia doesn’t require campaign funds to be spent on campaign purposes, the state has few mechanisms for ensuring campaign finance reports are accurate. There are no clear guidelines for what should and shouldn’t be considered a campaign expense. Candidates also aren’t required to file documentation detailing exactly how money was spent, enabling a $1,900 expense to be summed up with the single word “travel.”

Deliberately false statements on disclosure forms filed by both lobbyists and legislators can be punished as a felony offense, but the law allows forms to be amended to correct minor omissions or errors.

Given the murkiness of Virginia’s laws and lack of detailed disclosure requirements, it can be difficult to determine whether a deliberate omission occurred or whether an official made a judgment call on how to interpret rules that are unclear.

The ethics council and the General Assembly itself are responsible for reviewing legislators’ gift disclosures and instructing members to rectify any “deficiencies.”

Staff for the ethics council, which typically doesn’t weigh in on lawmakers’ activity and treats much of its work as confidential, declined to comment.

This story was originally published in the Virginia Mercury.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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