“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.