The Post’s View

Bob McDonnell’s vacation-home gifts

VIRGINIA GOV. Robert F. McDonnell (R) earns an official salary of $175,000, making him one of the best-paid chief executives of any state. On top of that, Mr. McDonnell receives free lodging at the executive mansion in Richmond and, one can be sure, plenty of free food at the countless functions he attends. Is it too much to expect, then, that the governor would pay for his own vacation digs at a lake house in southwestern Virginia?

The question arises from the reporting of The Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman, who discovered that since Mr. McDonnell took office in 2010, deep-pocketed political donors have covered all — or most — of his lodging expenses each summer at Smith Mountain Lake, a picturesque resort near Roanoke.

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Mr. McDonnell has recently struggled to explain why he failed to disclose a $15,000 gift from a donor, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., that covered most of the catering bill at his daughter’s 2011 wedding. (He said it was a gift to his daughter, and thus it was exempt from Virginia’s laws; in fact, it was the governor himself who was on the hook for the catering bill.) It was also Mr. Williams, chief executive of Star Scientific, a company that makes diet supplements, who gave Mr. McDonnell and his family use of his house at Smith Mountain Lake in 2011.

As The Post reported, Mr. McDonnell’s predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine (now a U.S. senator), also once accepted use of a Caribbean vacation home from investor James B. Murray Jr.But Mr. McDonnell seems to have made a habit of vacation-home freebies. He also received lodging at the lake, gratis, in 2010 and 2012, courtesy of a Lynchburg firm called Delta Star that makes power transformers.

The exact value of the lake house lodging given to Mr. McDonnell over the three summers is unclear. On his disclosure forms, the gifts he lists from Mr. Williams and Delta come to almost $17,000 in lodging, meals, entertainment and related expenses. But the disclosure forms are vague to the point of opacity, specifying not the date of the gifts nor that they were for McDonnell family vacations nor how the disclosed dollar value was calculated.

Mr. McDonnell, taking cover behind Virginia’s anemic disclosure requirements, which exempt gifts to family members, has ignored calls to provide a comprehensive accounting of the gifts his family received from Mr. Williams. Until he does so, he may face a continuing drip of incremental disclosures.

Mr. McDonnell and, for that matter, Mr. Kaine, are not the first politicians to receive valuable freebies from political donors. The rules for U.S. senators, for example, prohibit most gifts of more than $50, but they make a big fat exemption for lodging — exactly the kind of thing that Mr. McDonnell got from Mr. Williams and from Delta Star.

But why would the governor, whose ethics record over a long career in public service was previously unblemished, put himself in such a compromising position? Plenty of Americans who earn $175,000 pay for their own vacations. Mr. McDonnell should be able to manage the same feat.

 
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