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Controversy ensnaring governor raises new questions about Virginia laws

Gift scandal highlights lax accountability rules cited by State Integrity Investigation

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Editor’s note, January 21, 4:47 p.m. — The indictment of former Gov. Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen will likely yield a new round of debate over Virginia’s laissez faire ethics laws —a subject highlighted by the Center’s State Integrity Investigation. The couple was charged Tuesday in a 14-count federal indictment related to thousands of dollars in gifts, loans and vacations received from a well-to-do businessman during Gov. McDonnell’s term in office. McDonnell “emphatically” denied the charges and promised to fight what he termed “false allegations.” But regardless of how it turns out, the case has shined a harsh light on Virginia’s ethics and transparency rules, which received an F from the Center’s probe.  

A series of revelations and stinging media reports about Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s relationship with a corporate executive is bringing new attention to the state’s forgiving accountability laws — a subject highlighted last year by the State Integrity Investigation.

The root of the uproar is a $15,000 catering tab for the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter back in 2011, quietly paid by Jonnie Williams Sr., the CEO of Star Scientific, a Glen Allen, Va.-based dietary supplement company. Now the news, first reported in late March by the Washington Post, is dominating conversation in the state’s political circles and raising questions about Virginia’s liberal allowances for gifts to politicians: there is no limit.

Through a series of reports, the Post has detailed a close relationship between Williams and McDonnell’s family. Three days before the wedding, McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, flew to Florida to promote Star Scientific’s new product at a gathering of scientists and investors. Three months later, the company held its launch party for the product at the governor’s mansion. The McDonnells have also vacationed at Williams’ home, flown on his corporate jet and received more than a hundred thousand dollars to the governor’s campaign and PAC.

Published reports indicate that federal officials are interested, but the relationship may have stayed entirely within the bounds of Virginia’s ethics laws. The main question is whether McDonnell should have disclosed the $15,000 catering gift. He has said it was a present to his daughter (while Virginia officials must report any gift over $50, money given to family members is not subject to disclosure). The Post unearthed documents showing that the governor signed the catering contract and that an overpayment to the caterer was returned to Maureen McDonnell.

Whether or not the governor violated any rules or laws, the controversy says more about the laxity of Virginia’s ethics laws, according to John McGlennon, chairman of government department at the College of William & Mary.

“The ironic aspect of it is that because Virginia’s ethics regulations are so loose, relatively few people have actually run afoul of them,” McGlennon said. “They exempt so much, they don’t impose limits or really restrict the source of either contributions or gifts, that it’s pretty hard to run afoul of the law itself.”

As the State Integrity Investigation’s summary for Virginia points out, the allowance for unlimited gifts is just the beginning. The project is a state-by-state ranking of government transparency and accountability released last year by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Virginia is one of nine states without an ethics commission and one of four without limits on campaign contributions. In fact, Virginia’s ethics laws are among the least restrictive in the nation, a dubious distinction that helped place it 47th out of 50 states with a grade of F.

Due to the paucity of oversight, McGlennon said “there’s very little other than self-policing,” he said. “Unless you see some smoking gun, you just take people’s word for it.”

Without an ethics commission or other oversight body, the task of investigating falls to law enforcement, which rarely results in much action, he said.

Last week, the Post and the Associated Press reported that the FBI is now looking into whether McDonnell gave any special dispensation to Star Scientific or to Williams. The inquiry is an outgrowth of an investigation into some of the company’s securities transactions.

McDonnell has denied doing any favors for the company in return for the gifts.

The scandal has reached into the governor’s cabinet as well. In April, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is running for governor on the Republican ticket this year, amended his own disclosure forms to include gifts from Williams dating back to 2009. Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly amended her disclosure reports to include travel gifts from Star Scientific and the South Carolina Republican Party.

McDonnell and Cuccinelli each said they would be open to tightening the state’s disclosure laws to require reporting of gifts to family members. In response to the scandal, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor, has said he would propose limiting gifts to $100 per donor. The episode has led several local newspaper editorial boards, including the News Leader and The Daily Progress, to call for more robust gift rules. In an editorial last month, the Post said the lack of disclosure for gifts to family members is a “whopper” of a loophole that enables “secret cash payments” to public officials.