McDonnell needs to do much more to have any hope of repairing reputation

Robert McCartney
Columnist July 27, 2013

Two weeks ago, I wrote that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “sole, slim chance at redemption” in the gifts scandal was to confess everything, return all the money and appeal to the public for forgiveness.

On Tuesday, he took a first step toward doing just that.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

But he didn’t go far enough.

To preserve any hope of salvaging his reputation, McDonnell (R) must dig deeper into his pockets and his soul.

Admittedly, it probably wouldn’t be sufficient to save his political career, and certainly not if he’s indicted. New York politicians Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner are attempting comebacks after sex scandals, but they have an advantage: Voters are typically more tolerant of sins of the flesh than of the bank account.

“I think he [McDonnell] could survive a texting scandal better than this,” George Mason University political scientist Mark Rozell said. “I just don’t think voters will forgive this kind of behavior, where somebody in public life took advantage to profit personally.”

Still, McDonnell could do a lot more to fulfill the goal he proclaimed Tuesday of regaining Virginians’ “sacred trust and confidence.”

For starters, he should return or donate to charity all the gifts that his family received from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams Sr.

McDonnell said Tuesday that he and his family have repaid $124,000 in what he says were loans from Williams. But he didn’t address some of the luxury gifts that have attracted much attention.

The public won’t be satisfied until it knows that the governor doesn’t still have that $6,500 Rolex watch tucked in a drawer to sport again after he leaves office in January. He should repay the $15,000 catering bill for his daughter’s wedding and the $15,000 for the New York shopping spree by his wife, Maureen.

McDonnell also needs to hold one of those lengthy, awkward news conferences to explain how his judgment went so askew and to say he’s learned his lesson.

In his statement Tuesday, McDonnell said he was “deeply sorry” about the “embarrassment” that the controversy has caused the state.

But he hasn’t answered follow-up questions or provided details. He tweeted the four-paragraph statement shortly before leaving the country on a hitherto secret trip to Afghanistan to visit U.S. troops.

If McDonnell opened up, many Virginians would be willing to listen. They have been impressed with his governorship, overall, until now. Even though his approval rating has slipped below 50 percent, it’s still in the middle to upper 40s — about the same as President Obama’s.

“I think the door is not completely closed to him. I think the public wants to like him,” said Quentin Kidd, political science professor at Christopher Newport University. “They probably want to hear him say: ‘I made mistakes, but I didn’t do anything illegal. . . . I’m trying to make amends for it.’ ”

Finally, McDonnell should make political ethics and gift reform the No. 1 priority of the remaining months of his term. Virginia’s laws on gifts to politicians are notably lax. There’s no restriction on gifts to elected officials, providing they’re disclosed. Gifts to family members need not be disclosed.

“We miss the point here if he doesn’t take the lead in calling for stricter disclosure laws, at a minimum applying them to immediate family members and probably applying tougher penalties,” said former congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.).

No amount of support for ethics reform would help McDonnell if he ends up facing serious legal charges. That would also hurt his chances of obtaining a high-paying, private-sector job so he can relieve the financial pressure caused by ill-timed real estate investments and Maureen’s expensive tastes.

The biggest question in Richmond is whether a federal grand jury will indict the governor for public corruption under the Hobbs Act.

The answer will depend partly on whether the U.S. attorney believes that there is evidence of a trade-off, a “quid pro quo,” between Williams’s largess and actions that the governor took to help the businessman, such as by helping to promote his company’s product. McDonnell has strongly denied that any such bargain took place.

Regardless of his legal fate, McDonnell owes it to the voters to repair as best he can their faith in good government — and him.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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