But there is nothing illegal or unusual about accepting such largesse in the Old Dominion, one of just 10 states that allow officeholders to take personal gifts of unlimited value, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. McDonnell’s predecessor, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D), also received sizable gifts, including an $18,000 Caribbean vacation from a wealthy supporter.
Virginia requires only that officials disclose any gifts worth more than $50. Kaine reported his vacation gift, and McDonnell did the same for the lakeside lodging. But McDonnell did not disclose the wedding payment or his three-hour spin in Williams’s $190,000 Ferrari.
McDonnell has said the payment from Williams was a present not to him but to his daughter. The commonwealth does not require officials to disclose gifts to immediate relatives. That loophole, when paired with the lack of dollar limits, gives Virginia one of the most unrestricted gift laws in the nation.
There is some question about McDonnell’s contention that he was not involved in financing his daughter’s wedding; he personally signed the catering contract and put down an $8,000 deposit, part of which was later refunded to first lady Maureen McDonnell, not their daughter Cailin.
But a gift to the governor’s daughter would not have to be reported in Virginia, which is not the case in most of the nation. Thirty-two states treat gifts to officials’ close relatives as gifts to the officials themselves, according to a survey by the NCSL. Some laws explicitly apply gift restrictions to immediate family, while others say the rules pertain to gifts given “directly or indirectly” to officials.
In Maryland and the District, ethics laws generally prohibit officials and public employees from accepting gifts from anyone with business before the government. Both places make exceptions related to certain meals and gifts of “nominal” value, such as pens or calendars.
There is no explicit ban on gifts to close relatives of officials in Maryland or the District. But ethics officials in both places said that such gifts would not be allowed because their laws prohibit doing something indirectly that can’t be done directly. Darrin Sobin, the District’s director of government ethics, also pointed to a city law that forbids using public office for private gain.
“If someone called me up and said, ‘Could I accept this for my daughter’s wedding?’ I think the answer here in the District would be, ‘No,’ ” he said. “Even if the individual is not a prohibited source — anybody regulated by or doing business with the city — they still would not be able to donate for the wedding because they probably in all likelihood [are offering the gift] simply because the public official is who he is.”