Bob McDonnell, the earnest-sounding kid from Fairfax County, is governor of Virginia, an office to which he vowed to bring the sensibilities of his middle-class upbringing. That included ethical straightforwardness.
McDonnell is veering from it — again.
This time — as with last time and before that — McDonnell is tripping up over money. Again, it’s someone else’s. Again, it’s a large amount. Again, it’s perceived as having strings attached. Again, it’s explained away as much ado about nothing.
The latest: $15,000 from the politically active boss of Henrico County-based Star Scientific, Jonnie Williams Sr. The money paid for dinner at the Executive Mansion for about 200 guests at the 2011 wedding of McDonnell’s daughter, Cailin, to Chris Young.
The money, first reported by The Washington Post, was never disclosed by McDonnell because it was not a gift to him, the governor’s office said. Rather, it was for Cailin, who — unlike the governor — is not required by state law to provide an annual inventory of gifts, be it travel, entertainment or tchotchkes.
There are few requirements on disclosures by relatives. Officials must report investments and other holdings shared with members of their immediate family. They also must report paid positions, such as jobs and directorships, held by a spouse or child.
In addition to unnecessarily casting a pall over a joyous occasion, this episode of administration dissembling calls attention to Virginia’s porous ethics law. It relies almost entirely on self-policing, requiring elective and appointive officials and candidates to, in effect, tell on themselves.
This is a throwback to Old Virginia, when government was largely the purview of a privileged, well-mannered few — an “affluent minority,” as Times-Dispatch political reporter Jim Latimer put it. There were almost no official rules because gentlemen didn’t need them to know how to behave.
New Virginia is more democratic. There are more participants, many of more modest means. And there are more rules, many of which are seen as technicalities. The elective class abides the letter of the law but not necessarily the spirit.
An overview of ethics laws by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows consistent inconsistency. That means what could be illegal in some states is legal in Virginia, including gifts to family members.
Alabama prohibits, with an important caveat, gifts to government brass and family members for “the purpose of corruptly influencing official action, regardless of whether or not the thing offered or given is a thing of value.”
But gifts are OK if they’re just that: gifts — because sometimes a politician and his kinsmen are simply fine folks with an agonizing sense of public mission.
In Illinois, the rule essentially is no gifts from no one. If you do business with the state or your business is regulated by the state, you are prohibited from giving anything of value to a government official or employee, or their immediate relatives.
Star Scientific has, over the past four years, supplied McDonnell and his political action committee with $108,500 in travel on the company jet, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The firm and Williams have given McDonnell more than $9,600 in food, lodging and entertainment since 2011.
The cozy relationship between Star Scientific and McDonnell is not an isolated example, especially of the headaches such entanglements have caused him.
When he was attorney general in 2007 — and readying to run for governor — McDonnell relinquished oversight of an investigation of cronyism and misuse of state property at the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Two years earlier, he had taken $25,000 in contributions from an apparent target of the inquiry: Dan Hoffler, an influential Hampton Roads developer and the agency’s former chairman.
Three former top officials were indicted. No charges were returned against Hoffler.
Ahead of his inauguration as governor in 2010, McDonnell reluctantly released a once-confidential list of transition advisers. He had balked at making it public, citing gray areas in the freedom of information law. It read like a Who’s Who of business types, political activists and big donors — most with impeccable Republican pedigrees.
Clean government, a theme of his gubernatorial campaign, seemed an afterthought during McDonnell’s term.
He failed to establish an ethics commission. His proposed ban on political contributions and gifts to the governor from firms seeking state contracts was restricted to large contracts and exempts the lieutenant governor and attorney general, both of whom can sway state business.
McDonnell also pledged tougher disclosures for lobbyists. The idea died in the General Assembly.
Another promise broken by McDonnell: not to raise taxes for transportation. But for that one, he hopes to be forgiven.
Jeff Schapiro is a writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.