McDonnell trial puts focus on unlimited gifts to Va. elected officials

August 30

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell wanted the jury to know that the guy who got to sit beside him at a New York City dinner hadn’t scored the privilege by bankrolling the first lady’s $20,000 designer shopping spree earlier that day.

Jonnie R. Williams Sr. earned that place of honor the Virginia way: with whopping, entirely legal, publicly disclosed campaign contributions.

“He was probably the largest donor there,” McDonnell said in testimony this month at his federal corruption trial, noting the $70,000 to $80,000 in free air travel Williams had legally donated to his campaign and his political action committee.

The spectacle of the McDonnell trial revolves around $177,000 in luxury gifts, vacations and loans that prosecutors say the McDonnells accepted from Williams in exchange for official acts. But the perfectly legal, unlimited-cash culture that has long pervaded Virginia campaign giving has been on display right alongside McDonnell and his wife, Maureen — and it has renewed the question of whether that culture is broken and needs a fix.

Although it enjoyed a reputation for clean government, Virginia had some of the loosest ethics rules in the nation before the McDonnell scandal prompted reforms by the General Assembly this year. Even now, elected officials can accept campaign contributions of any size and unlimited “intangible gifts,” such as vacations and meals.

List of gifts given to the McDonnell family from Jonnie Williams.

Some legislators expect the closely watched trial to inspire even tougher standards. Others say the case seems too extraordinary to form the basis for broad policy.

“I don’t think you can write a law that can cure what’s going on in the McDonnell trial,” said state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), expressing a common sentiment among state politicians who point to trial evidence of Maureen McDonnell’s possible mental illness and infatuation with Williams as unique circumstances to this case.

But there’s one thing the case has exposed: how subjective and mutable the rules are for who can give and how much.

For example, the legislature capped gifts at $250 this year. But gifts from “personal friends” remain unlimited. In 2013, McDonnell described Williams as a personal friend.

When The Washington Post first reported on the governor’s relationship with Williams in early 2013, a spokesman for McDonnell described the Star Scientific executive and his wife as “family friends.” In a text message to Maureen McDonnell the day the news article appeared, Williams wrote, “Celeste and I am proud to be your friends. . . . We will do anything for you.”

But during the trial, Williams testified that “the McDonnells were not my personal friends” and that he sent the text only because he “felt sorry for” Maureen McDonnell. When it became known that Williams was cooperating with investigators, McDonnell cooled, too. In one radio interview, he described Williams as someone “who, for a while, I considered a personal friend.” He said at the trial that he and Williams were not friends in 2011 — when McDonnell failed to disclose golf outings and a golf bag paid for by the businessman. But they were by 2012, when he accepted large loans from the Star executive.

A top aide testified that McDonnell had asked who qualified as a “personal friend” as he worked on his 2010 disclosure form. The governor was offered this rule of thumb: people he knew before becoming attorney general, his first statewide office.

But no definition fits every situation.

“When we tried to say a private friend is someone you met before you ran for office — well, I met my husband after I ran for office,” said Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond).

The legislature this year explicitly banned lobbyists and people with business before the state from being categorized as personal friends. “If you try to go any farther than that in defining who a friend is and isn’t, it raised all kinds of practical issues,” McClellan said.

Even so, McClellan is optimistic that the rules will get stricter.

“Even if the trial wasn’t going on, there would probably be new legislation,” she said, noting the decision of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to veto funding for an ethics council that he deemed too weak. “But everybody is sort of paying attention to what’s happened at the trial, and I can only imagine that whatever legislation gets introduced will have that trial in mind.”

Others are doubtful that changes­ are coming — or needed. Legislators were fully aware of Williams’s largesse when they took up ethics reform this year. The indictment, bursting with Bergdorf Goodman, Rolex and Ferrari, landed just as the legislative session was underway.

Before reforms were passed this year, Virginia officeholders could accept gifts of any size as long as they disclosed any worth more than $50. Gifts to officials’ immediate family members did not have to be reported. That loophole gained attention during the McDonnell scandal because some of Williams’s gifts were to family members rather than to the governor.

This year’s legislation limited what any individual may give to an officeholder to $250 a year. It requires gifts to family to be reported. But there were no limits placed on intangible gifts, including meals, transportation and trips. Campaign contributions remain uncapped. Legislators also opted against strengthening stock-reporting requirements in a way that would have blocked the kind of financial maneuvering that federal prosecutors allege Maureen McDonnell undertook to evade disclosure requirements

“We solved the bulk of what I would call ‘the McDonnell issues’ in the legislation we passed this year,” said Deputy House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah).

The issues not tackled, such as disclosure of loans to an officeholder’s business, might not be possible to solve through legislation, he said. McDonnell contends that he did not have to disclose $70,000 in loans from Williams because they were not to him personally but to a real estate partnership he owned with his sister.

McAuliffe signed an executive order the day he was sworn in, capping gifts to himself, his family and executive staff at $100. He later signed the ethics bill, calling it a good first step. But later, in the midst of a budget battle, he said the reforms were too weak and de-funded the ethics council that was supposed to collect and review financial filings.

“The governor will be introducing legislation [for the 2015 session] that seeks to give Virginians the ethics laws they deserve,” said McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy.

When asked about the McDonnell trial during a recent appearance in Newport News, McAuliffe suggested that he would favor banning virtually all gifts, according to a Daily Press report.

“Nobody should be giving you gifts. Why is anybody giving you gifts?” McAuliffe said, according to the paper’s report. “Outside of ceremonial keys or hats and things like that, he shouldn’t be involved in that.”

John McGlennon, who chairs the government department at the College of William and Mary and serves on the Board of Supervisors in James City County, said he does not expect big reforms.

“If the General Assembly wouldn’t pass stronger reforms this year, there’s not much chance they will next year,” McGlennon (D) said. “The public is disgusted with what they see as a corrupt system, but they have little confidence that anyone can do anything about it.”

Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) tried, and failed, to pass broader reforms this year. Among other things, he called for the state to cap campaign contributions at $20,000.

Whether the McDonnell trial convinces fellow legislators that there’s a need to get big money out of Virginia politics will probably depend on the outcome of the trial, Petersen said. He thinks a conviction for McDonnell — already the first governor in state history to be charged with a crime — would create sufficient shock to “jump-start” reforms.

And if he’s acquitted?

“A lot of people will say now that’s a vindication of what he did, for better or for worse.”

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