RICHMOND — The governor of Virginia doesn’t just write a thank-you note anymore when he gets a gift. These days, he also sends a reimbursement check.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe promised not to accept any gifts worth more than $100 when he took office in January, aiming to chase away the ethical clouds that settled over Richmond under Robert F. McDonnell, the former governor convicted of corruption last week.
But just because a governor declares that he will not accept expensive gifts does not mean people will stop trying to shower him with them. Old habits die hard in the Old Dominion, where public officials were free to take personal gifts of unlimited value until this year.
When the Democratic governor made a visit to the Washington Redskins’ training camp this summer, team owner Dan Snyder presented the governor with a jersey and jacket with “McAuliffe” on the back.
The governor accepted them graciously, but afterward directed his staff to find out if he could actually keep them. Under Executive Order No. 2, which he signed just minutes after taking office, McAuliffe prohibited himself, his family or members of his executive staff from accepting anything worth more than $100.
The jersey turned out to be worth $299.95, the jacket $209.95.
Hardly on par with the $20,000 designer shopping spree that factored into the trial of McDonnel (R) and his wife, Maureen, who were convicted of lending the prestige of the governor’s office to a wealthy businessman in exchange for $177,000 in luxury gifts and low-interest loans. Even so, Snyder’s gift was five times McAuliffe’s limit.
The Redskins gear even exceeded the looser standard that legislators imposed on themselves and other elected officials this year in response to the McDonnell scandal. They limited tangible gifts to $250.
And so McAuliffe enclosed a personal check for $409.90 in his thank-you note to Snyder, which praised the team owner for his “kindness and generosity” but also explained that his gift was over the governor’s limit.
“It is important that the citizens of the Commonwealth know that the rules governing the receipt of gifts apply to me as well,” McAuliffe said in the letter, which was written in August but only came to light this week with a report in Washingtonian. The governor’s office provided a copy to The Washington Post.
“The governor appreciates the thoughtfulness people put into gifts that they give him when they meet with him,” said McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy. “But he set standards for himself and his family and members of his administration ... so Virginians could remain confident that he was always putting their interests first.”
McAuliffe has been in Snyder’s corner when it comes to controversy over the team’s name, which critics call offensive to Native Americans. McAuliffe has defended Snyder’s right, as the owner of a private business, to choose the name of that enterprise.
The governor’s letter seemed to make oblique reference to that support by saying he will wear the gear “with honor and pride.” Washington City Paper called McAuliffe a “Snyder Suck-Up” for using that phrase, which Washingtonian noted was borrowed from the owner’s campaign to defend the name.
The governor has had to pull out his checkbook at least once before to make a generous gift square with his executive order. At an event last spring, someone gave McAuliffe a scarf for the first lady.
McAuliffe said the giver assured him the present was worth less than $100, but he was suspicious because it came in a Neiman Marcus bag, he recalled at a forum at The Richmond Times-Dispatch in April. They checked with the store and discovered it was worth $420.19.
“So today I wrote a check for $320.19,” McAuliffe told the paper. “I ended up buying a scarf that I did not want, and my wife didn’t want it. ... It’s the right thing to do.”