RICHMOND — Supporters of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell launched a Web site with a testimonial from Virginia’s longest-serving legislator on Monday in a bid to raise money for the governor’s mounting legal bills.
Retiring Del. Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford) e-mailed a letter that was tantamount to a political fundraising pitch on behalf of the term-limited Republican’s legal defense fund. The e-mail directed recipients to a newly created Web site for the “Restoration Fund.”
The fund was established in July to help the governor defend himself against federal and state investigations into luxury items, monetary gifts and loans that a Virginia businessman provided to McDonnell and his family.
Beyond helping the governor pay his lawyers, the fund and letter are part of an effort to restore McDonnell’s image and preserve his legacy, said Rich Galen, a private spokesman hired to respond to questions about the scandal.
“That is an effort to start a process of having citizens of the commonwealth remember that they really like this guy and he has been a really good governor,” Galen said. “We want people to remember he’s done really good stuff, really bipartisan stuff.”
Investigators are exploring the McDonnell family’s relationship to Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who gave gifts to the first family at a time when the governor and first lady Maureen McDonnell promoted its dietary supplement, Anatabloc. McDonnell did not disclose some of Williams’s largess. State ethics laws, among the most permissive in the nation, allow office-holders to accept gifts of any value but require disclosure of those worth more than $50. Gifts to immediate relatives do not have to be reported.
Putney, who has served alongside 12 Virginia governors since taking office in 1962, praised McDonnell’s administration as “one of the most productive and successful in modern Virginia history.”
“This has been a difficult time for Governor McDonnell and his family,” he wrote. “Too many outside pundits don’t understand — and haven’t bothered to ask about — Virginia’s laws. I believe the Governor accurately and lawfully filed his Statements of Economic Interest.”
The Web site shows photos of a smiling McDonnell and an image of a piggy bank beside the words, “Make A Donation. Help Defend Governor McDonnell and Preserve His Legacy.” Supporters are asked to click on a rectangle with a red-heart symbol and the words, “I’m in.” So far, six people have clicked, including one of McDonnell’s daughters, Jeanine.
“Let’s rally for the Restoration Fund to help Defend Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Legacy,” the site says.
In July, three McDonnell supporters established a legal-defense fund for the governor. Chairman Stanley Baldwin, a Virginia Beach lawyer, said Monday that he started the fund with a $5,000 donation he made. No other donations have been made, he said, noting that organizers have not launched a big fundraising drive. Putney’s letter was the first public appeal for donations.
“We haven’t really rolled out the fundraising yet,” Baldwin said.
Putney’s letter emerged after the delegate asked if he could do anything to help the governor, Galen said. McDonnell’s team suggested that he write a letter, one that Galen hopes will be the first in a series from high-profile supporters.
“It’s one thing to have to do something,” Galen said. “It’s another to reach out and help someone when you don’t have to and it doesn’t do anything for you.”
Putney’s office said he was traveling and not available for comment.
At the bottom of his letter is a line disclosing that the message was paid for by the Restoration Fund. Galen said he checked with state elections officials to see if that sort of disclosure line, which is required for political campaigns, was necessary. Elections officials were not sure, so the line was included out of an “abundance of caution,” Galen said.
“This doesn’t happen very often in Virginia, and there was no hard and fast rule,” he said.