Virginia AG candidates Herring, Obenshain weigh in on role of office amid gifts probe

July 11, 2013

The Democratic candidate hoping to succeed Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) is questioning his Republican opponent about whether he agrees with the office’s decision to shield Cuccinelli from the allegations of improper gifts to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) from a prominent donor.

State Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudoun) sent a letter Wednesday to state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), pointing out that the GOP candidate is Cuccinelli’s hand-picked successor and that Obenshain worked on Cuccinelli’s transition team as he prepared to take office four years ago.

In the letter, Herring said he found the news that Cuccinelli was unaware for months of the allegations “alarming.”

“The idea that a deputy in the Attorney General’s office, knowing that Ken Cuccinelli was conflicted. . . would decide to handle it himself without the consent or knowledge of the Attorney General is both stunning and telling,” the letter reads.

“My question for you is simple: Do you believe that the way this was handled by the Attorney General’s office was appropriate?” the letter ends. “Virginians are awaiting your response.”

Obenshain said in an e-mailed statement Thursday that he is “committed to ensuring that the important work of the Attorney General’s office is unimpeded by any inappropriate political influence or even its appearance.”

“I have managed law firms and I understand the need for effective policies and procedures,” the statement read. “While every case is unique, as Attorney General, I will implement appropriate measures to ensure that the public trust will be upheld and that the Office of the Attorney General and law enforcement can effectively do their jobs.”

On Wednesday, Obenshain became the first GOP statewide candidate to support a ban on gifts over $100 for elected officials and members of their households.

Obenshain also called for a thorough review of disclosure laws and said that if elected, he would provide professional training on ethics and conflict of interest for staff and political appointees.

Herring’s inquiry comes amid revelations of more gifts from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. to McDonnell, and on the heels of news that Cuccinelli was intentionally not told about the allegations for five months last year – during a time period when the attorney general made a profit on stock he owned in Williams’ company. Virginia does not have an independent ethics review board to investigate such matters, but the Attorney General’s Office is one of the few avenues to initiate an inquiry.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday, Herring said the office’s actions reflect a pattern of behavior and oversight in leadership.

“It shows that the Attorney General has created a culture where there is indifference towards ethical issues, or that political ambitions are more important than doing what’s right for Virginia,” Herring said.

Herring, along with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate state Sen. Ralph S. Northam have expressed similar positions. Cuccinelli has also said he supports exploring ethics reform.

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