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McDonnell denies wrongdoing as ethics dominates governor's race

 

Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell denied any wrongdoing in his business dealings with a family friend and donor, saying Tuesday that an FBI probe into that relationship does not impair his ability to serve as governor.

McDonnell largely dismissed a Washington Post report on Monday, which said that federal investigators were exploring the relationship between the McDonnell family and a major donor: Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Williams paid the $15,000 catering bill at the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter.

“I think it’s important for the people of Virginia to know nothing has been done with regard to my relationship with Mr. Williams or his company, Star Scientific, to give any kind of special benefits to him or his company or, frankly, any other person or any other company during the time that I’ve been governor,” McDonnell said on Washington’s WTOP radio.

The Virginia governor acknowledged the gift from Williams to his daughter, but said that it wasn’t previously disclosed because under state law, gifts given to family members don’t have to be reported by officeholders.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) during their annual meeting in Washington in this file photo taken February 19, 2010.

“I made the determination -- and I believe it was correct -- that it was a gift to my daughter, and therefore under the current laws it did not need to be disclosed,” McDonnell said, adding that the controversy has caused “a fair amount of pain” for him personally.

McDonnell denied giving any preferential treatment to Star Scientific, which has come under scrutiny for its production of a nutritional supplement. Additionally, a former chef at the governor’s mansion, who faces a separate trial on embezzlement charges, has alleged in court filings that there was an improper relationship between the McDonnell family and Williams.

McDonnell, a possible contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, said that while he could not comment about an ongoing trial or investigation, there was no reason to doubt his ability to serve.

“I’ve had a remarkable opportunity to serve these last three and a half years, and there’s nothing going on at all that impairs my ability to do a good job and to serve the people of Virginia,” he said.

The controversy involving Star Scientific could end up making significant waves, though, in the race this year to succeed McDonnell as governor of Virginia, a position that can serve as a launching pad for further political ambitions.

Terry McAuliffe, Virginia Democrats’ nominee for governor, has seized on Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s ties to Star Scientific -- partly to ding the GOP gubernatorial candidate, and partly to deflect Cuccinelli’s own attacks on McAuliffe for his ties to the environmentally friendly automaker, GreenTech.

At issue are gifts disclosed by Cuccinelli given to him by Williams, the Star Scientific CEO. The attorney general had previously acknowledged receiving several thousand dollars’ worth of gifts from Williams, including travel and lodging. He amended his disclosure forms on Friday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, to include additional gifts from Williams and other undisclosed gifts.

(A spokeswoman for Cuccinelli said Friday that the attorney general had “voluntarily and personally undertook a thorough review of all travel records and scheduling information to determine if there were any instances not reported in his financial disclosures,” which prompted the amended disclosure. Cuccinelli has also recused his office from prosecuting the case against the former executive chef at the governor’s mansion.)

The flap over Star Scientific has all at once made ethics and transparency a central issue in Virginia’s high-profile governor’s race, while also inviting additional mudslinging between the two candidates on those very issues.

The McAuliffe campaign, for instance, called on Tuesday for Virginia to establish an independent ethics commission to investigate and enforce ethics standards. The Democrat also voiced support last week for a ban on gifts over $100 for Virginia’s governor and first family.

The Cuccinelli campaign, meanwhile, has focused on trying to pressure McAuliffe to release more detailed personal income tax information beyond three years’ worth of summaries. The conservative attorney general’s campaign has also circulated a report from NBC’s affiliate in Richmond raising questions about McAuliffe’s Greentech project based in Mississippi.

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