Bob McDonnell and his dwindling band of apologists have offered two main excuses, one public and one private, to justify the Virginia governor’s acceptance of so many gifts and loans from a friendly businessman.
The public argument is, “Everybody’s done it.” An additional one, coming privately from some supporters, has been, “His wife made him do it.”
Neither defense was strong to begin with. Now both have collapsed entirely with last week’s revelation that the generosity showered on McDonnell (R) and his family included two checks and a wire transfer totaling $120,000.
The payments came on top of previously reported gifts including a $6,500 Rolex watch, $15,000 New York shopping spree and $15,000 worth of wedding catering. All came from Jonnie Williams Sr., chief executive of the diet supplement company Star Scientific.
The latest disclosure prompted even Republicans to say that the scandal has permanently stained McDonnell’s reputation. Federal and state investigators will decide whether to bring charges against the governor amid speculation in Richmond he might have to resign.
Even if he stayed on the right side of the law, it’s clear that McDonnell betrayed the public trust by becoming so beholden to the head of a company whose products the governor and his wife were actively promoting.
Sadly, the public defense that McDonnell was doing nothing out of the ordinary has had an element of truth. Other governors and Virginia politicians have accepted private plane rides and free vacations from well-to-do supporters, as McDonnell did from Williams.
State laws are so lax that all of it is legal as long as the largess is disclosed. McDonnell has stretched the disclosure requirements to their limits and then argued that he’s just following “rules that have been in place for decades.”
But veterans of state politics could not remember another sitting governor accepting cash from a supporter for personal or family purposes, even if the law allows it.
Most of the $120,000 in newly disclosed payments went to shore up the McDonnell family finances, which were strained by ill-timed investments in beach rental property. McDonnell reportedly viewed the payments as low-cost loans. None has been repaid.
“This kind of money coming from interested parties who are not truly personal friends, this is unprecedented,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “This is not the norm, and they shouldn’t be trying to pass it off as business as usual.”
A similar point was made by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP’s nominee to succeed McDonnell in the November election.
“What we’ve all been seeing has been very painful for Virginia, and it’s been completely inconsistent with Virginia’s very reserved traditions,” Cuccinelli said.
Cuccinelli pointedly declined to opine on whether McDonnell should resign. “That’s a question for the governor,” he said, adding that the controversy has become “a distraction” in his race against Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe.
The latest revelation also undercut the much-whispered “explanation” that McDonnell erred by lowering his guard to indulge his wife’s reportedly expensive tastes.
Maureen McDonnell has been centrally involved in the previously reported controversial gifts. She went on the shopping spree. She asked Williams to buy the Rolex so she could give it to the governor. She went to Florida to promote Star Scientific’s newest product.
Several people familiar with the events, including Republicans, said the governor or his aides should have set stricter limits.
“There was just an attitude there of, ‘Give Maureen whatever she wants.’ . . . At some point in the process, somebody needed to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is too much,’ ” said a knowledgeable individual who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject was sensitive.
Maureen’s role is still at issue, partly because she personally received a check for $50,000 as part of the $120,000 in payments.
But the other $70,000 went to a partnership jointly owned by Bob McDonnell and his sister, so the governor must have known in detail about the money. Also, in state disclosure forms, Bob McDonnell listed the $50,000 payment to Maureen McDonnell as a debt owed to an individual in “medical services” or “health care.”
“The original theory was he can’t say ‘no’ to his wife, but it no longer holds, because he had to be centrally involved,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political commentator.
McDonnell’s sole, slim chance at redemption now is to make a full confession, return all the money and appeal to the public for forgiveness. He’s run out of excuses.
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.