Va. Senate approves bill allowing donors to public universities to stay anonymous

Bill now goes to governor; critics worry bill would hinder oversight of schools

VIRGINIA -- The Virginia Senate Tuesday passed a bill that, if signed by the governor, will prevent disclosure of the identities of anonymous donors to three public universities.

Proponents of the bill argue that it is necessary to ensure the anonymity of donors who request it, because some people might not contribute otherwise. Opponents and open government advocates, however, contend the bill would inhibit oversight of a public institution and potentially allow anonymous donors to influence these universities for personal gain.

H.B. 407 will allow Virginia State University, the University of Virginia and the University of Virginia's College at Wise to withhold information that could identify donors who request anonymity. These public institutions are affected because they do not use a separate foundation to collect donations. Under Virginia law, universities that use foundations to manage endowments and gifts to the university are not required to disclose information about anonymous donors.

The bill was passed by the state House Feb. 8. Del. G. Glenn Oder (R-Newport News) is H.B. 407's primary sponsor.

Craig Smith, legislative assistant for Oder, said the bill's purpose was to allow donors to give anonymously to the University of Virginia and Virginia State University, which under existing open-records laws are required to identify all donors.

"If someone wanted to give anonymously [to the three schools] they could not do that," Smith said.

Smith said colleges and universities that use foundations provide the option of anonymity to protect donors from further solicitation by other groups. Smith said donors could have other reasons for requesting anonymity; for example, some parents might want to contribute unequal amounts to different colleges their children attended.

Smith said that the University of Virginia requested the legislation.

Opponents of the bill argue that it cripples oversight of the university. Ginger Stanley, executive director for the Virginia Press Association, said that the legislation could potentially allow for large donors to influence the university.

"When you realize that Virginia taxpayers are the biggest donors to the University, this is a huge concern when those types of public dollars are used," Stanley said.

The University of Virginia and the Virginia Press Association worked together to reach certain compromises on the bill, Stanley said. The Virginia Press Association does not oppose provisions that protect personal information about donors, such as addresses and telephone numbers. But the group opposes allowing donors to remain completely anonymous.

As reported by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, Del. Terrie Suit (R-Virginia Beach), who voted against the bill, said in a subcommittee hearing that it could conceal the award of University contracts to big donors, and that donors can give anonymously already to one of the several University-affiliated foundations.

Craig characterized the argument that schools could be influenced by large donors as "a discredit to the university."

Opposition groups also worry about the precedent the bill could set for other groups.

"I think the difficulty we've had is the broad public policy issue," said Jennifer Perkins, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. "The people who get it see that this is a much bigger deal than it is on the surface."

Stanley said she worries that if colleges are allowed to protect anonymous donors, other public institutions might seek the same ability.

"Imagine a city council receiving special donations from certain contractors and no one being able to find out that information," Stanley said.

H.B. 407 will now be sent to the governor to be signed into law.

Stanley said the Virginia Press Association would ask Gov. Tim Kaine to veto the bill.

The governor will have 30 days from the end of the General Assembly's session, March 8, to sign or veto the bill.

Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for Kaine, said the governor supports the bill in principle but will review its specific provisions before deciding whether to sign it.

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