Cuccinelli, trying to quiet Star controversy, stirs it up

Correction: An earlier version of the headline incorrectly said that federal agents had grilled Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli II about Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. One FBI agent, along with a state investigator, questioned Cuccinelli about Williams. This version has been corrected.

September 11, 2013

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II tried to put his association with a gift-giving Virginia businessman behind him by writing an $18,000 check to charity, but the payback triggered more questions from his opponents and handed Democrats a new campaign attack in the race for governor.

Cuccinelli (R) announced Tuesday that he was making a charitable donation equal to the $18,000 in gifts that Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. gave him. The gifts had become a liability for Cuccinelli in the governor’s race, because Williams’s much larger presents to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his family are the subject of state and federal investigations.

While discussing his donation in a TV interview that aired Tuesday night, Cuccinelli said for the first time that federal investigators have questioned him about his relationship with Williams.

That disclosure might not, in the end, amount to all that much. But for most of Wednesday, Democrats were freely running with the idea that Cuccinelli had been under federal investigation. And they were using clips from his own, carefully planned interview to do it.

“BREAKING: Cuccinelli Questioned By Fed Investigators over His Ties to Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams,” read the headline on a news release posted on opponent Terry McAuliffe’s campaign Web site.

Watch Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli reveal for the first time that he was questioned by federal investigators looking into the Star Scientific gifts scandal at the 5:50 mark in the video. (YouTube.com/NBC12 of Richmond)

“This revelation is just the latest shoe to drop in the Star Scientific scandal and leaves voters wondering what else Cuccinelli has been hiding about his scandal plagued tenure as Attorney General,” McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said in the release.

Cuccinelli’s campaign said that the attorney general was referring to a law enforcement interview that was publicly disclosed months ago. The interview was coordinated with a state review, which Cuccinelli had requested and which ultimately cleared him. By the end of the day, the state prosecutor who handled that review also was backing Cuccinelli’s contention that federal officials seemed focused on McDonnell’s ties to Williams, not Cuccinelli’s.

Cuccinelli disclosed the federal questioning in the course of day that his campaign had sought to keep tightly scripted. He gave just two interviews, one to the Associated Press and one to a television station, Richmond’s WWBT (Channel 12). The campaign informed the rest of the media via a two-minute video shot in his kitchen. But NBC12’s Ryan Nobles, who conducted the TV interview, threw Cuccinelli a curveball.

“We know the governor is under federal investigation for his connection to Jonnie Williams,” Nobles said. “Were you ever contacted by federal investigators for your connection to Jonnie Williams?”

Cuccinelli responded: “Yes. I was asked questions about Jonnie.”

Nobles: “And it never led to anything further than that? They haven’t said anything since then?”

Graphic

A look at the two major-party candidates' views on some of the most pressing issues facing Virginians.

Cuccinelli: “No. That was months and months ago.”

A campaign official quickly noted Tuesday night that Cuccinelli was never under federal investigation. But the campaign also suggested that federal officials had asked Cuccinelli only about McDonnell’s relationship to Williams, not his own.

“Ken Cuccinelli was cleared by a Democrat Commonwealth Attorney in a review that he initiated,” campaign spokesman Richard Cullen said in an e-mail. “During the course of that independent review, he was also asked questions about the federal investigation concerning Governor McDonnell.”

Around mid-day Wednesday, the campaign clarified that federal and state investigators jointly interviewed Cuccinelli about gifts he received from Williams.

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring (D), who oversaw the state review, said a Virginia State Police report on the interview does not make reference to participation by a federal investigator. But he did not rule that out.

“It is entirely possible that the FBI was present and it’s just not reflected in the VSP report,” he said. “I don’t see the issue here. In my opinion, the fed focus has always been on McDonnell and Williams, and rightly so.”

Williams gave the governor and his family luxury items and $120,000 that McDonnell has characterized as loans. McDonnell has apologized for embarrassing the state and returned the gifts, but he said he never provided any state favors to Williams or Star. The company makes a dietary supplement, Anatabloc, that McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell have promoted.

Cuccinelli initially failed to report $4,500 in gifts from Williams as well as substantial stock holdings in Star, lapses he called inadvertent. They took place when Cuccinelli’s office was opposing Star in a civil tax case and pursuing charges against the chef at the governor’s mansion, who first notified investigators of Williams’s gifts to McDonnell.

Cuccinelli asked Herring to review his disclosure forms after acknowledging his reporting failures last spring. He sat for a single interview, his campaign said, without an attorney.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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