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

VIRGINIA — The Virginia Senate Tuesday passed a bill that, ifsigned by the governor, will prevent disclosure of the identities of anonymousdonors to three public universities.

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

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

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 purposewas to allow donors to give anonymously to the University of Virginia andVirginia State University, which under existing open-records laws are requiredto identify all donors.

“If someone wanted to give anonymously [to the three schools] theycould not do that,” Smith said.

Smith said colleges and universities that use foundations provide theoption of anonymity to protect donors from further solicitation by other groups.Smith said donors could have other reasons for requesting anonymity; forexample, some parents might want to contribute unequal amounts to differentcolleges 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 thatthe legislation could potentially allow for large donors to influence theuniversity.

“When you realize that Virginia taxpayers are the biggest donors tothe University, this is a huge concern when those types of public dollars areused,” Stanley said.

The University of Virginia and the Virginia Press Association workedtogether to reach certain compromises on the bill, Stanley said. The VirginiaPress Association does not oppose provisions that protect personal informationabout donors, such as addresses and telephone numbers. But the group opposesallowing 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 hearingthat it could conceal the award of University contracts to big donors, and thatdonors can give anonymously already to one of the several University-affiliatedfoundations.

Craig characterized the argument that schools could be influenced by largedonors as “a discredit to the university.”

Opposition groups also worry about the precedent the bill could set forother groups.

“I think the difficulty we’ve had is the broad public policyissue,” said Jennifer Perkins, executive director for the VirginiaCoalition for Open Government. “The people who get it see that this is amuch bigger deal than it is on the surface.”

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

“Imagine a city council receiving special donations from certaincontractors and no one being able to find out that information,” Stanleysaid.

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 toveto the bill.

The governor will have 30 days from the end of the General Assembly’ssession, 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.