RICHMOND — Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who for months has said very little about gifts and loans received from a campaign donor, has launched an aggressive drive to improve his reputation.
Over the past two weeks, he has switched lawyers, hired a private spokesman, apologized to the commonwealth, given back $124,000 to the wealthy benefactor and, on Wednesday, traveled to Afghanistan, looking very much like a governor immersed in something other than his own political and legal troubles. The activity, culminating in McDonnell’s surprise visit to Virginia troops overseas, represents a clear shift in strategy for the governor.
“We’re going to be more aggressive in presenting the governor as a man who is honest, honorable and has spent a good deal of his adult life in public service,” said Rich Galen, the private spokesman McDonnell hired to work with his legal team.
McDonnell (R) had not said much about the gifts and loans since March, when The Washington Post first reported that he and his wife had promoted a nutritional supplement made by a businessman who had helped pay for the wedding of one of their daughters.
When questioned about it in radio interviews and news conferences, McDonnell stuck to a simple defense: He did not have to disclose the $15,000 catering payment because it was a present to his daughter, not to him. He also said that the businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., and his business, Star Scientific, had received no favors from the state. McDonnell said he only promoted the product, called Anatabloc, as he would any other Virginia product.
He mostly stayed on script even as news of other gifts trickled out, along with word that state and federal officials were investigating the McDonnells’ relationship to Williams. Citing ongoing legal proceedings that he said constrained his ability to speak, he said only that he had diligently followed Virginia’s disclosure laws, which are among the most lax in the nation.
Newspaper editorials, conservative bloggers and, quietly, even some Republican colleagues expressed dismay about why he was not trying to get ahead of the growing scandal. But McDonnell said little or nothing about the $6,500 Rolex that Williams provided to him, the $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree for first lady Maureen McDonnell, the $70,000 loan to a real estate company owned by the governor and his sister, the $50,000 loan to the first lady, or the $10,000 engagement gift to another daughter.
Then, within the past two weeks, McDonnell parted ways with his defense attorney, Emmet T. Flood of Williams & Connolly, a powerhouse Washington firm, according to two people familiar with the investigation and a close associate of the governor. The move puzzled some observers because Flood is a renowned criminal defense attorney whose past clients have included Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
A close associate of the governor suggested that McDonnell chafed at times under Flood’s strategy, with the lawyer focused on the legal investigations and McDonnell concerned about his personal and political reputation.
The associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private matter, said that Flood’s strategy had been to “build a fortress.” The new legal team, the associate said, has signed off on a public stance that better matches McDonnell’s own desire to speak more openly about the situation.
“For him as a person, it was terrible,” the associate said. “That’s just not who he is. He’s not a trench-and-retreat-under-attack person.”
Flood did not respond to a call seeking comment. Nor did the attorney hired to replace him, John Brownlee, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
Galen, his newly hired spokesman, was press secretary for Dan Quayle when he was a senator from Indiana and political communications director for Newt Gingrich when he was speaker of the House.
On Tuesday, McDonnell’s legal and public relations team, financed by a legal defense fund, issued a statement from McDonnell that apologized for embarrassing Virginia and said that the governor had repaid the $70,000 and $50,000 loans, with interest.
“I am deeply sorry for the embarrassment certain members of my family and I brought upon my beloved Virginia and her citizens,” McDonnell said in the statement. “I want you to know that I broke no laws and that I am committed to regaining your sacred trust and confidence.”
Until that point, McDonnell’s most full-throated defense had been voiced by Tony Troy, a private attorney hired at state expense to represent McDonnell’s office in a related criminal embezzlement case against the former governor’s mansion chef.
Chef Todd Schneider catered the wedding reception that Williams bankrolled and turned whistleblower after authorities started investigating whether he had pilfered food from the mansion. In the course of his defense, Schneider has alleged that McDonnell’s grown children took large quantities of food, liquor and household supplies from the governor’s mansion to their own homes or college dorm rooms.
On July 8, the day of a hearing in the chef’s case, Troy appeared in front of TV cameras outside the courthouse to compare what the McDonnell children had taken to the cold meatball sandwich his Italian mother always packed for his return to college.
“Every family treats their children like that,” Troy said. “The first family shouldn’t be treated any differently.”
Later that day McDonnell’s office announced that he would reimburse the state $2,400 for hummus, “hint of lime” chips, toilet paper, body wash, deodorant and other items sent to school with three of the governor’s five children.
Troy’s “cold meatball sandwich defense,” as it’s come to be known in Richmond, appeared to be an effort to minimize the controversy at a time when conservative bloggers and other allies were urging the governor to step forward and acknowledge missteps.
The next day, July 9, the governor gave a rare, sit-down TV interview on the scandal, during which he insisted he had done nothing wrong.
“Thirty-seven years and no one has raised questions about my integrity or my character,” he told WTVR.
The scandal deepened later that night when The Post reported that Williams had provided the $70,000 and $50,000 loans, and the $10,000 engagement gift.
McDonnell canceled public events the following day and made no immediate comment. Not long after, Flood was out, and Brownlee and Galen were in. Within two weeks, with McDonnell’s office declining to disclose his whereabouts, his legal team issued his apology and repayment.
The next day, Wednesday, his office revealed that he was in Kabul as part of a Defense Department delegation visiting U.S. service members stationed in Afghanistan and Kuwait.
His staff trumpeted the trip by e-mailing reporters photos of McDonnell with the troops. A notice was sent to supporters of his political action committee. Every state employee received an e-mail from the governor alerting them to the trip.
“As an Army veteran, and the father of a daughter who served in the Army in Iraq, it is particularly meaningful to me to have had this opportunity to visit our troops serving in Kuwait and Afghanistan, including members of the Virginia National Guard,” McDonnell said in statement released by his office.
He did three interviews from Afghanistan. In one, he told Washington’s NBC4 that he has given no thought to resigning. “None, I’m not going anywhere. I love this job,” he said.