RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II said he will give a Richmond-based charity more than $18,000 — the value of gifts he received from a Star Scientific executive whose much larger presents to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his family are the focus of two investigations.
Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor, has been under pressure from critics and supporters to pay back Star chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. since late July, when McDonnell (R) announced that he would return valuables and money that Williams had provided to him and his family.
“I made the decision to send the check because it’s the right thing to do, plain and simple,” Cuccinelli said in a two-minute video shot in his kitchen, a refrigerator adorned with a child’s artwork behind him. “This is something I would have liked to have done sooner, but like most Virginians, writing a check for more than $18,000 is not a simple matter for my family and me. It’s taken a while to get our funds together.
“For those who have been disappointed in this situation or how I’ve handled it, I apologize. It’s been a humbling set of lessons for me.”
Cuccinelli’s effort to distance himself from the controversial business executive suggested that the gifts scandal threatens not only McDonnell’s political future but also Cuccinelli’s bid to replace him. The announcement came after several public polls showed Cuccinelli trailing Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic opponent.
It was not the only step Cuccinelli has taken to distance himself from McDonnell, whose popularity with business leaders and social conservatives as recently as a year ago was thought likely to give Cuccinelli a major boost. In response to the unfolding scandal, the attorney general has urged the General Assembly to convene immediately in special session to tighten ethics law, and he has aired a television commercial in which he takes credit for launching the state’s investigation of McDonnell.
Shoring up support among conservatives is crucial for Cuccinelli, who counts the state’s most ardent GOP activists and tea party organizers among his most faithful fans. But perceptions that Cuccinelli has played down social issues to win votes among independent voters have alienated some conservatives — and the Star Scientific scandal has given them more reason to be skeptical, several said.
“The whole Star Scientific thing has been just one more question mark in the minds of the conservative base,” said Larry Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, who applauded Cuccinelli for donating the money. “He needs to come back to his conservative base, including the Tea Party. . . . If they stay home in droves, he will lose.”
Federal and state investigators are examining Williams’s relationship with the McDonnells, who promoted a dietary supplement made by Star Scientific around the time Williams was providing them with luxury items and with money that McDonnell has characterized as loans. McDonnell has said Williams received no state favors in exchange for his largess.
Cuccinelli is not under investigation — a Richmond prosecutor has looked into his gift disclosure forms and found no wrongdoing — but the attorney general’s ties to Williams have dogged his campaign.
In an interview Tuesday with NBC12, a Richmond TV station, Cuccinelli acknowledged for the first time that he had answered questions from federal investigators about Williams. But he said that the contact took place “months and months ago” and that he was never the subject of an investigation.
Cuccinelli initially failed to report about $4,500 in gifts from Williams as well as substantial stock holdings in Star Scientific. At the time, Cuccinelli’s office was opposing Star in a tax case and pursuing embezzlement charges against the former Executive Mansion chef, who first blew the whistle on McDonnell’s ties to Williams. Cuccinelli has said the reporting lapses were oversights.
Cuccinelli’s connections to Star could be particularly damaging because accepting vacations and a catered dinner from a wealthy businessman runs counter to his image as an economic populist concerned with the little guy. Those ties also complicate Cuccinelli’s attempts to paint McAuliffe as ethically troubled.
There was no immediate sign that the donation had extinguished Democrats’ interest in the issue. They released statements that criticized the timing of Cuccinelli’s donation.
“Cuccinelli’s pattern of ethical behavior is always the same: get caught in scandals, do nothing for months and then buckle to pressure for his own political reasons,” said Josh Schwerin, spokesman for McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman.
Ethics issues have hung over both candidates in the race for governor. Amid the churning Star scandal, the state’s inspector general has been investigating whether Cuccinelli’s office gave improper help to two out-of-state energy companies, one of which donated $100,000 to the candidate. The electric car company McAuliffe co-founded is the subject of investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Homeland Security over its use of a federal program that grants visas to foreign investors.
“Terry McAuliffe’s campaign talking about ethics is about as credible as A-Rod talking about steroids in baseball,” said Garren Shipley, spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, referring to Yankee star Alex Rodriguez.
Cuccinelli supporters and neutral political observers weren’t sure that his donation would put the issue to rest.
“You need to take as many sticks away from your opponent to hit you with, and this is one that may have been used to some effect,” said former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), whose endorsement both candidates are seeking. “It’s something that you just don’t need.”
Cuccinelli’s announcement struck some observers as uncharacteristically belated and guarded for a candidate who has sought to get out in front of the scandal from the start. His campaign revealed the donation through the video and granted just two interviews, one to the Associated Press and the other to Richmond’s NBC affiliate.
Although Cuccinelli initially failed to report substantial stock holdings in Star, he corrected his disclosure forms long before late March, when The Washington Post first published a story about the delay. After The Post’s initial reports, which also revealed that Williams had paid for catering the wedding of a McDonnell daughter, Cuccinelli called a news conference to disclose that he had failed to report $4,500 in gifts from Williams. He also released eight years of income tax returns and challenged McAuliffe to do the same. (The Democrat has declined.)
McDonnell, by contrast, hunkered down, declining to say whether Williams or others had provided additional gifts to him or his family. What followed was a steady stream of revelations about designer clothing, money and cosmetic dental work provided by Williams and others. Virginia law allows officeholders to accept gifts of unlimited value as long as they disclose any worth more than $50. Gifts to immediate relatives do not have to be reported.
But in July, McDonnell hired a new legal and PR team and suddenly stepped forward, issuing a public apology and promising to return gifts to Williams. McDonnell has not provided a full accounting of what he and his family returned, but it includes $120,000 that McDonnell described as loans, $15,000 for the wedding catering, a $10,000 engagement gift for another daughter, a $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor and $15,000 in clothes for first lady Maureen McDonnell.
After that, Democrats began calling on Cuccinelli to follow McDonnell’s lead and return his gifts.
Cuccinelli said his gifts were either intangible items, such as stays at Williams’s Smith Mountain Lake vacation home, or consumable goods that were gone or given away, such as a catered Thanksgiving dinner and a box of Anatabloc, Star’s nutritional supplement. McDonnell also received intangible gifts, including a stay at the lake house and the use of Williams’s private jet and Ferrari. With the exception of the $15,000 in wedding catering, there has been no indication that the governor has reimbursed Williams for intangible or consumable gifts.
“There are some bells you can’t unring,” Cuccinelli said in July.
The Cuccinelli video did not explain where the $18,000 came from. His campaign said he and his wife pooled their money with funds provided by relatives. He donated the $18,000 to CrossOver Healthcare Ministry, which bills itself as Virginia’s largest free health clinic.
Asked by NBC12’s Ryan Nobles if he was conceding that accepting the gifts was a mistake or unethical, Cuccinelli said: “Certainly not unethical. But this has colored people’s perspective. And, you know, it’s been a very humbling experience, of course. I’m the one who reported all of this. I called people together to share my mistakes and then turned it over to a Democrat prosecutor who cleared me of legal wrongdoing. But that doesn’t mean [the] people of Virginia are happy with it. And obviously, I’m sorry about that. And I’m trying to wipe the slate clean here so we can focus on what’s gonna matter in people’s lives in Virginia in the next four years.”
Michael Laris contributed to this report.