Herring said Thursday that he had found no criminal wrongdoing over the course of his nearly three-month investigation. Yet he also hinted at an appearance problem that still threatens to dog Cuccinelli throughout the governor’s race against former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe.
“Although one cannot help but question whether repeated omissions of gifts from [Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.] are coincidence or a pattern reflecting intent to conceal, the disclosure of several other gifts and benefits from Williams in his original statements suggests that the Attorney General was not attempting to conceal the relationship,” Herring wrote in a report on his investigation. “Furthermore, we find no evidence that in his statements the AG intentionally mischaracterized gifts and benefits from Star Scientific and Williams.”
Herring’s conclusions, released in an e-mail Thursday, could help Cuccinelli fend off criticism from Democrats and others that his omissions undermine his integrity, one of his top selling points as a blunt-talking conservative.
Yet Cuccinelli could have trouble completely extricating himself from the matter, particularly with the embezzlement case of the former governor’s mansion chef, scheduled go to trial three weeks before Election Day.
Chef Todd Schneider, accused of pilfering mansion food, has tried to defend himself by blowing the whistle on lavish, undisclosed gifts that Williams provided to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who is term-limited, and the McDonnell family. The chef has accused Cuccinelli of turning a blind eye to that alleged wrongdoing because of his own ties to Williams.
Cuccinelli has said that his reporting lapses were inadvertent oversights and that his staff had kept him “walled off” from the chef’s allegations against Williams and McDonnell until last fall, when the attorney general asked Herring to investigate the governor’s disclosures. That inquiry is continuing, as is a separate federal investigation into Williams’s relationship with the McDonnells.
Hours after Herring released his findings, McDonnell’s office released an “external report” of its own. It found that Williams, Star Scientific and affiliated companies had not received any state contracts, awards or gubernatorial appointments — something McDonnell has said for months.
Although billed as independent, the review was conducted by Tony Troy, a private lawyer hired at taxpayer expense to represent McDonnell in the chef case because Cuccinelli has been recused from that duty.
Troy’s report provided a previously unknown example of Star Scientific officials trying to promote the company’s product through state channels. It said that a salesman for the company met last year with Sara Wilson, director of the Department of Human Resource Management, to request “that the Commonwealth consider placing a Star Scientific product, Anatabloc, on a list of items available to state employees under the state health plan. Ms. Wilson denied this request.”
The Washington Post reported in late March that Cuccinelli had initially failed to disclose, as is required for Virginia elected officials, that he owned more than $10,000 in stock in a single company, Star Scientific. About a month later, Cuccinelli announced that he had not reported gifts worth $4,500 from Williams. The gifts were two stays that Cuccinelli and his family had made at Williams’s Smith Mountain Lake vacation house, one last summer and the other over Thanksgiving in 2010, when Williams also supplied a catered turkey dinner.
At that time, Cuccinelli also reported two other previously undisclosed gifts, neither from Williams: a chartered flight worth $7,751 for himself and his parents to Southwest Virginia, where Cuccinelli gave a speech, provided by Alpha Natural Resources; and transportation worth $795 from the Federation of American Coal, Energy and Security.
The gifts from Williams disclosed in April were in addition to others totaling nearly $13,000 Cuccinelli had previously reported receiving from the executive or his company, including another stay at the lake house in 2011.
Democrats have made an issue of Cuccinelli’s ties to Star Scientific and Williams, whose lavish gifts to McDonnell and his family have cast a shadow on the governor’s legacy and political future. The gifts Cuccinelli received from Williams were more modest than those the executive gave to the McDonnells, which included a $15,000 shopping spree for first lady Maureen McDonnell, a $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor, and payments or loans of $145,000.
But as attorney general, Cuccinelli had legal matters before his office that complicated any entanglements with Williams and Star Scientific, including representing the state against Star Scientific in a civil case challenging a state tax assessment.
The office also began prosecuting Schneider, the former governor’s mansion chef.
Cuccinelli’s office was recently recused from the case, and the attorney general sold his stock in the company.