September 12, 2013

VIRGINIA ATTORNEY General Ken Cuccinelli II, once regarded as a conservative straight-talker, has seen his reputation sullied by his double-talk in the state’s money-and-gifts scandal.

Mr. Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor, announced Tuesday that, because it’s “the right thing to do, plain and simple,” he had sent a check for $18,000 to a charity in Richmond in compensation for gifts he received in the same amount from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the businessman at the center of the scandal. In fact, Mr. Cuccinelli’s grasp of the right thing to do has been anything but plain and simple.

It was nearly two months ago that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R)repaid more than $120,000 in loans, plus tens of thousands more in gifts, that he and his family received from Mr. Williams, the chief executive of Star Scientific Inc., a nutritional supplement maker. At the time, Mr. Cuccinelli refused to repay his own gifts from Mr. Williams, which included travel on a private jet, vacations at a lake house and a catered Thanksgiving dinner. His now-notorious explanation: “There are some bells you can’t un-ring.”

A month later, he modified his story, suggesting that the real reason he couldn’t part with the cash-value equivalent to Mr. Williams’s largess was that it was just too much money. Mr. Cuccinelli earned $194,000 last year.

Now Mr. Cuccinelli has discovered the means to un-ring the bell, produce the $18,000 and, for the first time, sound contrite. He even said he wished he had been able to write the check sooner.

“For those who’ve been disappointed in this situation or how I’ve handled it, I apologize,” he said in a videotaped mea culpa. “It’s been a humbling set of lessons for me.”

Mr. Cuccinelli initially failed to disclose about $5,000 worth of gifts from Mr. Williams, as well as an investment in Star Scientific that, at one point, was worth more than $10,000. The chief prosecutor in Richmond, who examined Mr. Cuccinelli’s failures to disclose the gifts and investment, said they were more in the nature of oversights than an intentional effort at concealment.

However, Mr. Cuccinelli’s entanglements with Mr. Williams gave rise to conflicts of interest that went beyond his omissions on state disclosure forms. The lapses occurred as his office was opposing Star Scientific in a $2 million dispute over taxes owed to the state and as it prosecuted the chef at the governor’s mansion, who first blew the whistle on Mr. Williams’s gifts to Mr. McDonnell.

Did Mr. Cuccinelli not understand the conflicts? Did he not understand that, as the attorney general, it was wrong to accept gifts from a businessman whose firm was fighting his office? Did he not understand that it was wrong to accept gifts from the businessman as his office prosecuted a whistleblower whose revelations threatened both the businessman and the governor, a political ally of Mr. Cuccinelli’s?

Mr. Cuccinelli, like Mr. McDonnell, is not answering relevant questions. Each insists he did nothing to help Mr. Williams or Star Scientific. Yet the common denominator in both cases is bad judgment, as well as a foot-dragging reluctance to do “the right thing, plain and simple,” until damage control and political self-preservation required it.