Jonnie R. Williams. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch
by James A. Bacon
Virginia’s GiftGate has escalated from a minor brouhaha into a full-fledged media feeding frenzy with national overtones. The Washington Post editorial page has referred to the relationship with Star Scientific founder Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and Virginia’s two leading elected officials, Governor Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinell, as “Virginia’s deepening scandal.”
Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC host who has elevated snark to an art-form, has declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a scandal at hand.” She lambasted the governor for such reprehensible behavior as vacationing at Williams’ lake house at Smith Mountain Lake and riding back to Richmond in Williams’ Ferrari — which, she hastened to inform us, has “a retail price of $190,000.”
Based upon the reporting that I have seen, however, it is way premature to call the revelations a “scandal.” The media are making a Himalayan mountain chain out of a series of molehills. There is absolutely no evidence — at this point — that either McDonnell or Cuccinelli reciprocated Williams’ generosity with favors or special treatment.
Let me hasten to add a very important caveat. While I remain less than impressed by the allegedly scandalous dimensions of the affair based upon the evidence presented so far, I am more than willing to revise my appraisal if more substantive information turns up.
Also, let me make clear, I have no problem with the media running down the facts. A critical role of the Fourth Estate is to investigate the intersection of wealth and power. The bigger and more all-encompassing government gets and the more corporations seek to gain competitive advantage in the marketplace through the currying of political favor, the more imperative it is for the media to stand vigilant. Those in power need to know that their relationships and actions will be scrutinized for their propriety.
Further, neither McDonnell nor Cuccinelli did themselves any favors with the sloppy reporting of gifts from Williams, most notoriously the $15,000 Williams paid toward the banquet for McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding. McDonnell’s excuse that he did not report the contribution because it was a gift to his daughter came across as particularly lame.
Further, I do consider it unseemly that the First Lady, Maureen McDonnell, would travel to Florida to promote the Anatabloc anti-inflammatory supplement produced by Williams’ company, Star Scientific. Do we want Virginia’s First Lady flacking for corporate interests? Not me, not unless her appearance has been vetted by bureaucratic economic-development authorities. Finally, Cuccinelli, who owned stock in Star Scientific, should have recused himself from any involvement in litigation by the Attorney General’s office over the company’s unpaid taxes as soon as the situation arose rather than waiting for his relationship with Williams to be made public.
McDonnell and Cuccinelli are big boys. They know how the game is played. And they deserve to take heat for their oversights. But if those offenses amount to a “scandal,” it’s pretty weak stuff. Where’s the quid pro quo? Where is the string pulling? Where’s the abuse of power? Where’s the big pay-off for Williams or Star Scientific?
As a prime instigator of the media frenzy, The Washington Post devoted an entire article to an incident in which Star Scientific repaid hundreds of thousands of dollars of incentive money when it failed to live up to investment and job goals. Read the lead:
Star Scientific, whose chief executive paid for the food at the wedding of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s daughter, failed to create enough jobs to meet its part of an economic development deal with Virginia and was forced to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Oooh, that sounds deplorable. But it turns out that Star Scientific received the grant in 2002 — during the Warner administration! Governor Mark Warner had approved a $300,000 grant from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund as part of a $1 million incentive package when Star Scientific expanded a facility in Mecklenburg County. The $49.9 million project was supposed to create 315 jobs but it didn’t. Failing to meet investment and job goals outlined in his agreement with the state, Star Scientific returned the money in 2008 — during the Kaine administration. The system worked precisely as it was designed to. And none of this had anything remotely to do with McDonnell. What was the point of the article?
What we appear to have is an instance of a wealthy entrepreneur with Republican sentiments contributing lots of money to two Republican grandees and going out of his way to court a friendship with them. One might legitimately ask why. One might legitimately inquire if Williams was angling for some kind of favor. That’s why the public scrutiny is fully warranted. But to term the friendship a “scandal” at this point seems absurd. There is no public evidence that Williams received — or even asked for — special treatment.
Right now, it appears that that Williams, a wealthy man, likes to surround himself with rich and powerful friends and that McDonnell and Cuccinelli, both powerful men, enjoy the friendship of a guy with big houses and flashy cars.
If that’s a “scandal,” then it’s one that every governor of Virginia — and every governor of every state in the union — is undoubtedly guilty of.