April 3, 2013

JONNIE R. Williams Sr., chief executive of a Richmond-area company that once sold tobacco products and now peddles dietary supplements, is lionized locally as a renowned salesman — even though his firm has lost money for 10 years straight. His even greater talent seems to lie in cozying up to Virginia’s top elected Republicans and coaxing them to do his bidding.

In The Post last weekend, reporters Rosalind S. Helderman and Laura Vozzella detailed Mr. Williams’s efforts to cultivate Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, which have been repaid handsomely.

Starting when Mr. McDonnell (R) began running for governor five years ago, Mr. Williams, the chief executive of Star Scientific, has lavished him and his political action committee with gifts and services, including more than $100,000 in travel aboard his corporate jet.

For his part, Mr. McDonnell has hosted a reception at the governor’s mansion to help launch Star Scientific’s signature product, a dietary supplement of dubious scientific merit, and posed for a photograph with it; the governor’s wife, Maureen McDonnell, traveled to Florida to plug Star at a corporate event.

It’s unseemly. There’s nothing illegal or even highly unusual about corporations spending liberally to gain access to politicians. But the Williams-McDonnell symbiosis casts an unflattering light on Virginia’s anemic disclosure laws, which exempt gifts and donations of any size to a politician’s immediate family. When Mr. Williams paid $15,000 to cover the food at the wedding of Mr. McDonnell’s daughter two years ago, the governor was under no legal obligation to report it. As loopholes go, that’s a whopper; the effect is to encourage secret cash payments masquerading as “gifts” to a politician’s nearest and dearest.

Did Mrs. McDonnell also receive valuable personal gifts from Mr. Williams or his firm? Unfortunately, state law does not compel an answer, and our repeated inquiries to the governor’s office met with stonewalling.

Through a spokesman, Mr. McDonnell told The Post that Mr. Williams and his wife are “family friends” — a squishily defined category that also exempts gifts from state disclosure laws. Distinguishing friends from benefactors is virtually impossible in politics. If a politician can sweep gifts under the rug merely by calling donors “friends,” it confirms the law’s feebleness.

Ms. Helderman and Ms. Vozzella also reported that state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) failed for almost a year to disclose his stock holdings in Mr. Williams’s company even as Mr. Cuccinelli’s office was involved in litigation with it. Mr. Cuccinelli also received thousands of dollars worth of gifts and services from Mr. Williams, including use of Mr. Williams’s home in the Richmond suburbs for lodging; the use of a lake house and boat; transportation to Kentucky; and a box of dietary supplements valued at $6,700 — a miracle drug, perhaps.

Given Mr. Williams’s sustained courtship, common sense and prudence suggest that Mr. Cuccinelli should have recused his office from defending Star Scientific’s lawsuit against the state. But, as is often the case with Mr. Cuccinelli, no such common sense and prudence prevailed.

Adding to the odor surrounding all this is the fact that Star Scientific, by its own account, is under investigation by federal prosecutors in Virginia for possible securities irregularities. It’s hard to suppress the thought that Virginians will be hearing more about this story in the future.