RICHMOND — Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II urged Gov. Robert F. McDonnell on Monday to call a special General Assembly session to repair “severe holes” in the state’s ethics laws.
With McDonnell (R) embroiled in a gifts scandal, the Republican candidate to succeed him said Virginia cannot wait until the legislature reconvenes in January to tighten the state’s lax disclosure requirements.
“Trust is something that is easy to lose and hard to recover,” Cuccinelli said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think the longer we let this go, the more difficult it is for Virginians to achieve the level of faith in their government that I think they’re accustomed to. And I think that’s something we can achieve if we move quickly.”
Cuccinelli’s chief deputy told the governor in a face-to-face meeting Monday that the attorney general would publicly urge him to call the special session. After the meeting, a spokesman for the governor said he sees no need for it.
Cuccinelli’s move puts more space between the attorney general, who has been touched by the scandal, and the governor, who has been consumed by it.
Cuccinelli received gifts from the same Virginia businessman who showered luxury items, five-figure monetary gifts and $120,000 in loans on the McDonnell family. Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. gave the attorney general $18,000 in gifts, much of it in the form of air travel and lodging at Williams’s home in the Richmond area and his Smith Mountain Lake vacation house.
In recent weeks, Cuccinelli has sought to distance himself from McDonnell and the maker of nutritional supplements, whose relationship is the subject of state and federal investigations. Cuccinelli has had his office recused from related criminal and civil cases, noted publicly that he initiated the state investigation into McDonnell, and called the governor’s scandal “completely inconsistent with Virginia’s very reserved traditions.”
McDonnell said last week that he was working on his own proposal for ethics reform but saw no need to take the matter up in a special session.
“He was informed of the attorney general’s position on this matter,” McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. “However, he believes the proper time and place for the consideration of such changes would be during the next session of the General Assembly, which begins in January.”
The governor has the power to call a special session, something the General Assembly cannot do on its own without the approval of a super-majority in both chambers.
Virginia’s disclosure laws, among the loosest in the nation, allow officeholders to accept gifts of unlimited value as long as they report any worth more than $50. Gifts to immediately family do not have to be disclosed.
McDonnell has been under scrutiny since late March, when The Post reported that he and first lady Maureen McDonnell had promoted Star’s nutritional supplement around the time that Williams picked up the $15,000 catering tab at the wedding of a McDonnell daughter.
McDonnell has maintained that he did not have to report the gift because it was a present to his daughter, not to him. Williams also provided a $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor, a $15,000 shopping spree for the first lady, and a $10,000 engagement gift to another daughter — none of it reported in McDonnell’s annual gift disclosures.
In his interview, Cuccinelli said that the law should be changed so that gifts to spouses and perhaps children would have to be disclosed. He also said that he would support a “complete ban” on “cash and cash equivalents,” plus some cap on tangible gifts. In addition, he would favor establishing an ethics commission to review gifts given to legislators, who now police themselves.
It was not clear if the in-kind gifts Cuccinelli received — the use of a company jet and lodging — would be limited.
“When we see what Virginians are seeing — severe holes in our system — we should fix them,” he said.
The governor has said that Williams received no state favors in exchange for his gifts and that any efforts to promote Star and its supplement, Anatabloc, were in line with what he and the first lady would do to boost any Virginia-based enterprise. But last month, McDonnell apologized for the scandal and said that he and his family were returning the loans and gifts.
Cuccinelli has his own ties to Star and Williams. Cuccinelli initially failed to report substantial stock holdings in the company and about $4,500 of the gifts, including a Thanksgiving lake- house visit that came with a catered turkey dinner. Cuccinelli has attributed the lapses to oversights.
The attorney general has said that because he did not receive cash or tangible gifts, there is nothing to return.
His rival for governor, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, has played up Cuccinelli’s connections to Williams. On Monday, McAuliffe called on Cuccinelli to reimburse the Star executive.
“It takes significant disrespect of voters’ intelligence for Ken Cuccinelli to pretend to support laws that would prevent him from taking the gifts he refuses to return,” said McAuliffe spokesperson Josh Schwerin. “If Cuccinelli would like to help ‘recover trust,’ he could start by reimbursing the $18,000 in scandal gifts he took from Star Scientific and its CEO Jonnie Williams.”
While McDonnell has promised to return tangible gifts, he has declined to say whether he intends to pay Williams back for air travel and lodging that he received.
A Richmond prosecutor reviewed Cuccinelli’s disclosure forms and found no evidence that he had broken the law. Cuccinelli amended his disclosure form to include the stock holdings long before the scandal broke and alerted the media to his failure to report some gifts.
As recently as last week, McDonnell declined to say if Williams or others have provided his family with as-yet undisclosed gifts or loans.