Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said Tuesday that he will return all gifts from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and indicated for the first time that he was not aware of everything that the Star Scientific executive had given to his family.
McDonnell (R) made the promise during a radio interview as part of his new strategy to try to win back Virginians who have lost faith in him over a scandal involving luxury gifts and loans.
McDonnell announced that he was returning the gifts one week after apologizing for the scandal and disclosing that he had repaid $120,000 in loans that Williams provided: $70,000 to a real estate company owned by the governor and his sister and $50,000 to first lady Maureen McDonnell. (Related: What was given to the McDonnells )
McDonnell’s remarks on WTOP radio’s “Ask the Governor” program were his first about the gifts and loans since last week’s written announcement, issued as he was en route to Afghanistan to visit Virginia troops. He struck a tone Tuesday that was by turns contrite and defiant — one moment vowing to “restore trust with the people of Virginia,” the next noting that his Democratic predecessors had also received gifts. He said he was trying to regain the commonwealth’s faith but seemed reluctant at times to concede that there had been anything inappropriate in his interactions with Williams that would have caused him to lose it.
“I have made as sincere an apology as I can to people who looked at my judgments or my actions or those of my family with regard to these loans and said that I am deeply sorry if I — for breaching the trust between the citizens,” he said.
With about five months left in his term, McDonnell is trying to move past the controversy even as it remains the subject of state and federal probes. It has consumed the administration since late March, when The Washington Post first reported that the governor and first lady had promoted Star’s nutritional supplement about the time Williams paid the $15,000 catering bill for the wedding of one of the McDonnells’ daughters.
Attention to the McDonnells’ ties to Williams has grown since then, with The Post reporting that the Star executive also provided a $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor, a $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping trip for the first lady and a $10,000 engagement gift to another daughter. Investigators are also looking into whether Maureen McDonnell received free cosmetic dental work from a Richmond area dentist and jewelry from a state delegate, people familiar with the investigation have told The Post.
The radio interview yielded the governor’s most extensive statements on those gifts and the effect they have had on his legacy, family and administration. At one point, he defended the first lady, saying: “She’s probably been the most active first lady that I’ve seen in the 22 years I’ve been in office. I could go on with the list of the things that she has done.”
But when asked about her work promoting Star’s product, he said, “Ultimately, the first lady makes her own schedule.”
McDonnell lost patience with the WTOP radio hosts as they stayed on the topic for the first 45 minutes of the hour-long show. He tried in vain to switch the conversation to his trip to Afghanistan.
After the radio interview, McDonnell told reporters gathered outside the studio that the scandal has been a distraction to his administration. But he vowed not to let “detractors and naysayers” cause him to lose focus. He has kept a low profile since The Post reported the loans and $10,000 engagement gift July 9, but he went ahead with plans Tuesday to promote an adoption initiative in Fairfax County.
It was not clear from his radio remarks exactly what he will return besides the Rolex — something he acknowledged would go back to Williams only after one of the “Ask the Governor” hosts pressed him. McDonnell later told The Post that he will return all gifts from Williams, including those to family members. It remained unclear whether that will include reimbursement for the $15,000 in wedding catering Williams provided to Cailin McDonnell. Jeanine McDonnell recently returned her $10,000 engagement gift.
“Those gifts that I have in my possession I am working with my counsel to return,” McDonnell said. He declined to say afterward if some are not in his possession.
McDonnell repeated that he has tried to observe Virginia’s ethics laws, which allow officeholders to accept gifts of any size but require them to report any worth more than $50. McDonnell insisted from the start that he did not have to report the $15,000 in wedding catering because it was a gift to his daughter, not him. None of the other gifts — including the watch — was reported.
The $70,000 loan to the real estate company was not disclosed, but McDonnell has said it did not have to be because it was a corporate loan. McDonnell reported the $50,000 loan to his wife, but in a way that did not identify the lender. He said last week that he repaid those loans using personal and family assets as well as assets from the real estate company.
“Some of [the gifts] I did not know about at the time,” he said on the radio. Afterward, he declined to specify those gifts. At one point on the radio, McDonnell noted: “These are gifts that came to me. I didn’t ask for them.”
When the hosts noted that according to reports, Maureen McDonnell had asked Williams for the Rolex, McDonnell said: “I have not read many of the reports over the last 30 days because much of what I have read . . . about either me or my wife has not been accurate.”
He went on to say it would be inappropriate to discuss whether his wife had asked for that or any other gifts because of the ongoing investigations.
McDonnell reiterated that neither Williams nor his company received any economic-development money or appointments in return for the gifts, touting the findings of a review conducted by former Democratic attorney general Tony Troy. McDonnell did not mention that Troy, now in private practice, was acting as the governor’s lawyer when he produced that report.
On Monday, McDonnell’s office released documents showing that Troy’s firm, appointed to represent him and his staff in matters related to an embezzlement case involving the former chef at the executive mansion, billed taxpayers $54,000 for its first five weeks on the job, concluding May 31. That amount includes part, but not all, of the cost of producing the report, which was completed shortly before its July 18 release, the governor’s office said.
McDonnell said taxpayers incurred those expenses because Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), now running to succeed him, had been recused from representing the governor’s office in matters related to the chef’s case.
“My lawyer is generally the attorney general. . . . But he determined he had a conflict,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell’s statements provided a new complication for Cuccinelli, who also accepted $18,000 in gifts from Williams. Democrats pounced, demanding that he, too, return gifts from Williams, although most came in in-kind travel and entertainment that would be difficult to return. Cuccinelli’s campaign said the issue was a distraction.
The pledge to return gifts appeared to be the next prong in a series of steps McDonnell has taken in recent weeks to attempt to move past the scandal. Next, he told reporters, he will unveil proposals to tighten Virginia’s disclosure laws to help ensure that future governors do not have to “endure some of the things I have been through.”
However, he said he does not plan to call a special session of the legislature to address the issue.
Asked whether Williams or anyone else had provided as-yet undisclosed gifts or loans to his family, McDonnell replied, “I can only say that I’ve disclosed under the law what I believe the law requires me to disclose.”