In a state that prides itself on clean government, where no modern governor had been charged with a crime in office or out, the long list of felonies alleged against the McDonnells was hard to absorb.
Many Capitol insiders had been bracing for charges for months amid news reports about lavish gifts and loans that a wealthy businessman provided to the McDonnells and their children. But even for them, the indictment packed the punch of a sickening surprise. One compared its arrival to a death after a long illness: When it comes, it’s still a shock.
“I’m a little bit stunned,” said Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), who has known McDonnell (R) for more than 23 years.
Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who said last summer that the General Assembly should consider impeachment proceedings against McDonnell, called it a “sad day.” But he also said it was unfortunate that legislators never weighed in on the ethics scandal, which grew out of a tip from Todd Schneider, the former chef at the governor’s mansion, that Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. bankrolled the $15,000 catering tab at the wedding of one of the McDonnells’s daughters.
“I regret that the General Assembly did not take a bolder stand,” Petersen said. “We let the governor’s chef be our one-man ethics department.”
Schneider turned whistleblower after he was accused of pilfering food from the mansion. He eventually pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts of stealing food and agreed to repay the state $2,300.
The indictment landed as Richmond was adjusting to its second week with a new governor, in the middle of a General Assembly session, on a day when a special election could determine control of the state Senate and legislators were on the lookout for a much-hyped snowstorm that didn’t materialize here until nighttime. All that was quickly forgotten as news of the charges spread through Capitol Square. Legislators continued to slog through afternoon committee meetings — but with McDonnell on their minds.
“It’s going to take up some of the political oxygen for a while,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond political observer. “If Republicans see it as a partisan indictment, that can’t help [Democratic Gov. Terry] McAuliffe.”
But the charges are expected to help focus Richmond on one legislative priority: reforming Virginia’s exceptionally lax ethics laws. The gift scandal has inspired several bills that would limit the value of gifts to officeholders. Currently, they can accept gifts of unlimited value if they report anything worth more than $50. Gifts to family members do not have to be disclosed.
“I remain optimistic that we can work together to reform our system in order to prevent episodes like this from occurring ever again,” McAuliffe said in a written statement.
Legislators had not had a chance to read the indictment by evening and were unfamiliar with some of the explosive allegations within it. Prosecutors allege, for instance, that Maureen McDonnell lied to investigators about a $50,000 loan from Williams and that the former governor didn’t disclose loans from Williams when applying for a credit union loan, amending his application only after investigators approached his wife.
“We like to think of ourselves as a pretty smooth-running, clean state,” former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II ( R), whose own, smaller gifts from Williams complicated his unsuccessful bid for governor, said on CNN’s “Crossfire.”
“This puts a dent in that, and that’s not something we’re happy to see with the history we’ve got — which has been pretty darn good.”