June 4, 2013

IN JUST THREE YEARS in office, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has put his stamp on Virginia, earning a place as one of the most consequential and effective governors in the state’s recent history. At the same time, ethics controversies now threaten to swamp his last year in office, shadowing not only his putative presidential or vice presidential ambitions but also his gubernatorial legacy.

It is hard to reconcile the disconnect between Mr. McDonnell’s sober, substantive, reformist achievements and the evasive shenanigans he has deployed involving undisclosed payments and gifts to him and his wife, Maureen. How could the governor be so attentive to the state’s welfare and long-term prospects and so oblivious to his own?

Here, after all, is the first governor in years to have mustered the spine and spent the political capital to set in motion a fix for what had become the gaping wound of a transportation network bleeding to death for lack of funding. Here is a Republican governor who, finding himself blocked by members of his own party, designed a work-around that will restore the voting rights of tens of thousands of ex-convicts, many or most of whom could be presumed to be Democrats — despite his own unassailable conservative credentials.

It would be a pity if those achievements were to become overshadowed by the steady drip of ethical questions and disclosures. Yet if that is the misfortune Mr. McDonnell suffers, he can blame only himself.

Previously, The Post reported that Mr. McDonnell failed to disclose a $15,000 gift from a Virginia businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., which helped cover the catering bill at the 2011 wedding of the governor’s daughter. Mr. McDonnell insisted he was not required to disclose the gift because it was made to his daughter rather than to him. However, it was the governor who had contracted for the catering service, and the gift from Mr. Williams covered the governor’s obligation, not his daughter’s. Moreover, when it turned out to have been an overpayment, it was the first lady, Maureen McDonnell, who was reimbursed.

Mrs. McDonnell is also the focus of the latest embarrassing disclosure — a $36,000 payment to her last year by the charitable arm of one of the state’s biggest coal companies. Mr. McDonnell has been an advocate of coal interests, and he backed an extension of a tax credit that will mean millions of dollars for the industry.

In what appears to be a dodge of state laws, the governor listed his wife as a paid trustee of the charity, which she was not, rather than as a consultant, which she was. Under state law, that distinction allowed Mr. McDonnell to withhold the information that his wife received an annual salary exceeding $10,000 in return for attending two or three meetings and giving advice.

The FBI and state prosecutors and police have been looking into Mr. McDonnell’s finances. At the same time, the governor has refused to discuss other compensation or gifts his wife may have received. His reticence and what appear to be repeated instances of using definitional sleight of hand to skirt state disclosure laws have deepened suspicions that more damaging revelations about the governor may be forthcoming.