Three reasons McDonnell’s wedding-gift controversy should spark outrage


Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks with members of the House of Delegates on April 3. (Bob Brown/AP)
Robert McCartney
Columnist April 13, 2013

A joke in Richmond says the wedding march got new lyrics at the nuptials of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s daughter: “Here comes the bribe.”

It’s just a gag, but it arises from the serious revelation that a Virginia corporate executive paid the $15,000 tab for food at the 2011 wedding reception. The event occurred three days after McDonnell’s wife flew to Florida to promote the donor’s principal business product at a seminar.

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

The wedding-gift controversy is the first significant embarrassment to taint McDonnell (R) since he became governor. He has generally enjoyed a reputation as an earnest wonk rather than a slippery operator.

The affair also forces Virginia to confront the sorry reality of its weak anti-corruption laws, which received a grade of F last year in a national survey.

Virginia places no limits on gifts to politicians, as long as they’re disclosed. Even the disclosure requirement is waived if the gifts come from a personal friend or go to a family member.

Partly because of the laws’ many loopholes, there’s no evidence so far that the wedding gift violated any statute. Still, it’s outrageous in three ways.

First and most important, the pattern of mutual favors between the McDonnell family and Jonnie R. Williams Sr., chief executive of Star Scientific, doesn’t pass a smell test.

Donations to the McDonnells from Williams and the company go beyond poached shrimp and bruschetta for 200.

The company has provided more than $100,000 worth of rides on its corporate jet to McDonnell’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign and his political action committee. In the past two years, Williams and the company have also given the governor more than $9,600 in food, lodging and other largess.

The company benefited when McDonnell used the governor’s mansion to host a party for Star Scientific’s main product — an anti-inflammatory diet supplement called Anatabloc. That’s the one Maureen McDonnell touted at the Florida seminar.

The governor’s position is that there’s no connection between Star Scientific’s donations and any of his official actions. He says he and his wife have just routinely promoted a Virginia business.

But does any reasonable person think Williams’s generosity was purely altruistic? He had abundant ways to benefit from access to the governor. His company is losing money and is facing a federal investigation thought to focus on securities transactions.

“The gift has every appearance of being designed to influence Bob McDonnell and not to help pay for the wedding,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “We see a frequent pattern where special interests will find any way to throw money at the feet of a lawmaker to make sure the lawmaker is indebted to them.”

The second outrage is McDonnell’s failure to be open and transparent about what happened.

When the story broke, the governor said he didn’t have to disclose the $15,000 gift because he wasn’t the recipient. Instead, he said, it was a present to his daughter, Cailin, and her husband.

The gift became public only when reported two weeks ago by my Washington Post colleagues Roz Helderman and Laura Vozzella.

But The Post reported last week that McDonnell signed the catering contract for the reception and paid nearly $8,000 in deposits for it. He hadn’t mentioned that earlier.

McDonnell also won’t say now whether the family has received other gifts from Williams.

The third outrage is the excessive permissiveness of Virginia’s laws on contributions to politicians. A year ago, it was one of eight states that received a failing grade in a survey of integrity laws and policies by the nonpartisan State Integrity Investigation.

(Maryland got a D-minus, and the District wasn’t ranked. The project measured laws and not results.)

States fall into three broad categories in rules on gift-giving. The strictest bar almost everything under policies nicknamed, “not even a cup of coffee.” The middle tier sets caps on gift-giving at, say, $500 a year. The most relaxed states, including Virginia, set no limits.

The Old Dominion does prohibit any gift that “reasonably tends to influence” a public official in performing official duties. But that can be hard to prove.

Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said a sensible ethical standard was “meeting the appearance of propriety.”

She explained: “You don’t want the public to roll their eyes or be disdainful of any action that a public official does.”

The $15,000 wedding gift certainly set eyes rolling around Virginia. Next time, McDonnell should tell Williams to settle for a silver picture frame or crystal bud vase.

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

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