Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s strange episode involving a natural gas lawsuit involving one of his largest political contributors for his gubernatorial campaign raises yet another issue about his ethics.
First, whatever was a Cuccinelli staffer doing advising a subsidiary of coal and gas giant CONSOL Energy, which has given Cuccinelli more than $110,000 in political contributions? The case involved a dispute over compensation that energy firms apparently do not pay to landowners but are supposed to for natural gas they extract from their land.
One would think that the state’s top law officer would either be neutral or would be representing the smaller players who don’t have the legal deep pockets of large corporations.
In any event, a U.S. Magistrate blew the whistle on Cuccinelli’s office’s behavior, saying it was shocking. Now there is a call by State Sen. Phillip Puckett, a Democrat from the Southwest, asking that the state Inspector General review Cuccinelli’s behavior.
This is just a long line of odd doings that have come up regarding the attorney general since he started running in earnest for governor without resigning. He is out of legal action regarding the Star Scientific scandal because he owned stock in the firm and took gifts that he did not readily report as required. Ditto the ChefGate scandal involving theft charges against Todd Schneider, Gov. Robert McDonnell’s former executive chef.
No question there’s a pattern. It’s odd that it didn’t seem to show up earlier in Cuccinelli’s political career since he had been a state senator for about a decade. I don’t know if there was a pattern of accepting gifts in exchange for apparent favors then, but there certainly has been in the past several years.
The Virginian-Pilot has reported that Cuccinelli has been feted by Pittsburgh energy firm CONSOL which operates coal mines and gas wells in Southwestern Virginia. Virginia isn’t exactly a major coal producer, but CONSOL saw fit to fete treat the attorney general to a fund-raiser at a Pittsburgh Penguin hockey game this spring. Cuccinelli’s parents live in Pittsburgh. CONSOL also has donated thousands of dollars to his campaign.
The peculiar interference by a Cuccinelli staffer “advising” CONSOL and another firm smacks of shenanigans more common in West Virginia where the interplay between energy firms and politicians is a lot more obvious.
Don Blankenship, the notorious former CEO of Richmond-based Massey Energy, got plenty of bad headlines when he went on a French Riviera vacation with the state’s top appeals judge who was in a position to influence Massey’s many lawsuits. West Virginia elects its judges so Blankenship let his donations flow.
That story ended badly, with 29 miners dead in a horrible coal mine disaster in 2010. Blankenship was cashiered with an $86 million parachute and Massey was sold to Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources.
The sad thing is that Puckett’s calls for a probe will likely go nowhere. Virginia has never been known for cracking down on political donations. Its policy is hands-off. There is no State Ethics Commission to investigate. The best the state can do is rely on a non-profit, the Virginia Public Access Project, to collect and massage data on who gets what from whom, but as the McDonnell and Cuccinelli cases have shown, that information is useless if the data in is incorrect or misleading.
True, in any campaign there are plenty of accusations. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe is a master of fund-raising and far beats Cuccinelli in terms of dollars raised.
It might be oddly reassuring if Cuccinelli’s guile was all part of some cynical ploy. But it doesn’t seem that way. It just seems stupid.