The Governor and Attorney General’s Inappropriate Acceptance of Gifts
Rumors have been swirling about the possibility of Governor McDonnell resigning his position in the aftermath of the Star Scientific ethics scandal. His recent apology and return of the loans may lessen the pressure for resignation – unless other transgressions surface.
Nonetheless, the revelations have undermined McDonnell’s governorship and raise questions about the possible role Attorney General Cuccinelli played in keeping these facts from being disclosed to Virginia citizens.
It is clear that a $70,000 payment was made by Star Scientific owner Jonnie Williams to a corporation owned by McDonnell and his sister, and a $50,000 payment was made to Maureen McDonnell on May 23, 2011, the same day that Williams also made a separate payment of $15,000 to fund the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter. Of the $145,000 in gifts and loans disclosed thus far, the Governor has repaid $120,000, plus interest, and has apologized.
Despite the apology, an important question remains — did the Governor provide any special benefit to Williams and his corporation, Star Scientific, as a result of these gifts and/or loans? Press reports indicate that the Governor’s mansion was the site of a launch party of a supplement marketed by Star Scientific in August, 2011, and that Ms. McDonnell pushed this supplement at a Richmond hotel event in October, 2011 and flew to Florida in June, 2011 for meetings involving products produced by Star Scientific. There is also evidence that meetings were arranged between Star Scientific personnel and Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources, Bill Hazel, and suggestions that Hazel’s staff was offered a trip by Williams to visit a laboratory used by the company. Since a federal investigation is ongoing, other revelations may be forthcoming.
Attorney General Cuccinelli
The Attorney General has problems of his own. He bought and sold Star Scientific stock (one sale reaped a $4000 profit) and has been the beneficiary of Jonnie Williams’ largesse to the tune of $18,000. Like McDonnell, he initially failed to make disclosures as required by Virginia law, and failed to turn over the investigation of the Governor’s payments to a Richmond prosecutor until November, 2012 – eight months after his office became aware of Williams’ undisclosed wedding payment to the McDonnell family.
According to press reports that have not been denied, the Office of the Attorney General was notified and briefed about some portions of the Governor’s disclosure problems in March, 2012. These reports indicate that on March 21, 2012, the Attorney General’s office was provided information about Star Scientific’s relationship with the Governor, including the wedding contract by which Williams provided monies to pay for the caterer. Eight months prior in July 2011, Star Scientific filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Virginia, although the Attorney General did not dismiss himself from the case until 2013. When the case was filed the Attorney General had a clear conflict of interest due to his purchase of $10,018.80 worth of Star Scientific stock in October 2010. The Attorney General did not disclose this fact until two years later in October 2012. In November, 2012, eight months after his office became aware of McDonnell’s gifts, the Attorney General quietly asked a Richmond prosecutor to review the Governor’s disclosure statements.
Why it took from March to November for the Attorney General to ask for this review is a mystery. And what, if any, additional information the Attorney General or his office acquired during that period that led him to delay reporting to the Richmond prosecutor is unclear.
If you would like to review a timeline of the scandal, click here
Proposed Ethics Reform
This is the second serious ethics scandal in Virginia politics within the last five years. In 2009, a powerful Republican legislator, Phillip Hamilton, was charged with a violation of federal bribery and extortion laws arising out of his efforts to create a job at a university for himself in exchange for monies being placed in the state budget to fund the program. He was convicted of bribery and extortion in 2011, and is now spending 9½ years in a federal penitentiary.
On the heels of that scandal, Democrats in the House of Delegates offered legislation to tighten disclosure laws and prevent scandals like this from happening in the future. Those proposals were summarily rejected by the Republican leadership, which also refused to further investigate the Hamilton affair. Granted, even if the proposals had been adopted, it is not clear that they would have prevented McDonnell’s transgressions since they applied only to legislators. There is little doubt, however, that we have a problem and many now believe that ethics reform should be at the top of the agenda in the next General Assembly. The best approach would be to have a bipartisan working group develop legislative initiatives that could pass both houses when we reconvene in January, but the politics of the Governor’s race may prevent this.
Reasonable reforms would likely include restrictions on the amount of gifts that a legislator, a member of the executive branch, or their immediate family could receive, a tightening of definitions related to corporate giving, requirements of more timely disclosure of larger gifts, greater sanctions for violations of our disclosure rules, and the creation of an ethics commission that would have the ability to hear complaints and issue findings. At present, Virginia is one of only nine states in the country that does not have such an ethics commission.
The McDonnell and Cuccinelli revelations are extremely troubling for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is what it does to the public’s view of whether they can trust their elected officials to do the right thing. Most legislators and elected officials strive mightily to conform to both the spirit and the letter of the law. The Governor’s apology may help, but it is clear from this experience that not simply the letter of the law must change, but also the thinking about the spirit behind it. It is a pleasure and honor to represent you in the Virginia House of Delegates.
As always, please feel free to contact me to share your thoughts and comments on matters before the Commonwealth.