The constant turns in the scandal ensnaring Virginia’s first family over accepting tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from a wealthy donor highlight the need for changes in state laws, critics said Tuesday.
A week after repaying $120,000 in loans from Jonnie Williams and issuing an apology for embarrassing the state, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced Tuesday that he will return scores of gifts — including a $6,500 Rolex watch — he received from the CEO of Henrico County-based Star Scientific.
Those moves come amid state and federal investigations into the largesse.
McDonnell is in a political rough spot, because he has to apologize, but his lawyers are advising him not to reveal too much, said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia
The governor repeatedly has asserted that his behavior is legal — something he reiterated Tuesday. Those assertions probably are made on the advice of his lawyers, but that message waters down his apology, Sabato said.
“That’s the problem. These kinds of things may well be legal,” Sabato wrote in an email. “The outrage in Virginia is [over] what’s legal, not what’s illegal.”
Sabato said the governor should push for some sort of gift ban, rather than just seek to broaden the requirements for disclosure.
“Yes, this is akin to shutting the gate after the horse has left the barn, but closing the door on unlimited gifts could keep some horses in the barn in the future,” Sabato said.
Virginia’s gifts and disclosure laws widely are regarded as lax. Officials, for example, are not required to disclose gifts to relatives.
Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said he’d also like to see discussion on a gift ban, or at least a cap on large items. He said he’s taken gifts before, but never anything more than $100.
“Of course there have to be some exclusions with that – you can’t disclose every single birthday gift,” he said. “But we should be held to a high standard, and I think that’s why some of us want to look at the ethics laws so closely.”
Virginia is among 13 states that set no limits on gifts from lobbyists and others transacting state business. Thirty-one states set cash limits and six states have bans.
At the very least, Toscano said, elected officials should have to report when a spouse or immediate family member accepts a gift.
McDonnell’s problem, Toscano said, was that he claimed he didn’t need to report gifts to his wife, Maureen. That irritated taxpayers, who believe the governor is splitting hairs, Toscano said.
“There’s no doubt that we have to change our disclosure laws and some of our ethics laws,” he said.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch contributed to this story.