Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II visited a Northern Virginia business on Wednesday to talk about creating jobs but instead fielded questions about the growing controversy surrounding Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.
Cuccinelli, who hopes to succeed the Republican governor, declined to say whether he thought McDonnell should resign amid federal and state investigations into thousands of dollars in gifts that Virginia’s first family received from a political donor.
“That’s really not a question for the attorney general, that’s a question for the governor,” Cuccinelli said, while acknowledging that the controversy has become a “distraction” in his race against Democratic Party nominee Terry McAuliffe.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Star Scientific Inc. chief executive Jonnie R. Williams, Sr. gave $70,000 to a corporation owned by McDonnell and his sister last year, and that the governor did not disclose the money as a gift or loan. The Post, citing people with knowledge of the payments, said Williams also gave a $50,000 check to McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, in 2011.
The news comes after a series of disclosures that McDonnell and some members of his family had accepted $145,000 in gifts from Williams, whose firm manufactures dietary supplements. Those gifts are now the subject of federal and state investigations.
Hoping to call attention to the concerns of small business owners, Cuccinelli visited Holly, Woods, and Vines, a garden center on Route 1 in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. After co-owner Vanessa Wheeler escorted Cuccinelli over a 3-acre lot chock-a-block with topiaries, garden gnomes and plants, she told him that as a businesswoman, taxes were her greatest concern.
But Cuccinelli’s eagerness to talk further about his tax-cutting policies was overshadowed by the controversy over McDonnell’s gifts and increasing discussion, at least among Democrats, about whether he should resign. On Wednesday, state Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) became the first elected official to explicitly urge McDonnell to step down. Sen. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) also reiterated his belief that McDonnell should give an explanation and return the gifts, or go. House of Delegates Speaker William Howell (R) dismissed such talk as “partisan political potshots.”
“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 Wednesday in a separate, written statement issued by his campaign. “Right now there are two investigations running, one of which began with my referral, and we need to let those play out; however, all of this emphasizes the need for clearer and faster disclosures that cover the whole family, as well as a cap on the size and types of gifts.”
Besides addressing the governor’s problems, Cuccinelli was asked again about nearly $19,000 in gifts he took from Williams, including some that he didn’t disclose until April. He also initially failed to report more than $10,000 in stock holdings in Williams’ company, as required by state law. Cuccinelli said the omissions had been inadvertent.
The gifts and stock holdings have complicated his campaign and raised questions about a conflict in his office, especially because Star Scientific had brought a lawsuit against the commonwealth over a disputed tax bill on property in Mecklenburg, Va.
“I’m the one who went back and found them,” Cuccinelli told reporters Wednesday at the campaign stop. “I’m the one who held a press conference and said, ‘Hey, here are all my items, and I missed four or five over the course of four years.’ But that’s part of my commitment to transparency. When I make mistakes, I own up to them.”
Asked whether he had at least opened himself to a perception that the donor had attempted to buy influence, Cuccinelli replied: “I think perception is met best by facts, and the facts in our office are that on the one occasion when anything related to Star [Scientific] came across the Attorney General Office’s desk . . ., they were pushed back on — they were fought without giving an inch.”
Cuccinelli also suggested that McAuliffe’s record of questionable dealings as a the Democratic Party’s chief fundraiser has been worse.
“I didn’t charge Terry McAuliffe with being unethical. I’ve charged Terry McAuliffe with having a tendency to sell access instead of selling good policy,” Cuccinelli said.
Cuccinelli also reiterated his call for McAuliffe to release his tax returns. Cuccinelli earlier allowed reporters to inspect his tax returns; McAuliffe has only released summaries. Cuccinelli said Virginians should know how McAuliffe has earned his money and whether any of it came from entities set up in offshore tax shelters.
“Virginians should ask themselves why Ken Cuccinelli is lashing out and making wild accusations while still not following Terry’s lead and supporting a gift ban to hold Virginia’s next governor accountable,” McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said. “Given Cuccinelli’s own experience of having to recuse himself from multiple legal cases because of his own history with gifts from Jonnie Williams, he should know better than most the need to enact a gift ban to eliminate conflicts of interest.”