By Peter Galuszka
Richmond’s “Giftgate” scandal just gets worse.
On Friday, Atty. Gen. and presumed GOP gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Cuccinelli announced that he was amending his required disclosures of gifts to show that he took more goodies from Star Scientific plus previously undisclosed gifts of a $7,750 trip in 2010 to Southwest Virginia from coal giant Alpha Natural Resources of Abingdon and $795 to speak at a coal industry rally in 2012.
While the tardy disclosure is questionable, the gifts are not illegal but they would be in other states.
This, moreover, raises another tricky question. How wealthy should politicians be so they can’t be bought?
Could it be that officials of more modest personal means such as Cuccinelli might be somehow be more vulnerable to gift-giving by individuals or corporations with a definite agenda, such as Star Scientific and Alpha Natural Resources.
Cuccinelli disclosed income of $134,000 in 2009 and $264,296 in 2005. He makes about $150,000 as the state’s top legal officer and got a $30,000 advance from Crown Publishing for a book. His disclosure was a political ploy to embarrass McAuliffe but in the wake of the gifts, it has backfired.
McDonnell’s net worth is about $1.8 million.
Compare that to two Democrats. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, no stranger to big money fundraising, earned $8.2 million in 2011 from his various business interests. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner was once said to be worth about $200 million, much of it from investments he made in the cell phone industry and high-tech financing a couple of decades ago.
It’s tough to say that politics should be only for rich men. But the curious thing about these two Republicans, supposedly the silk stocking, country club party, is that McDonnell and Cuccinelli “are actually very much middle class guys,” Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth recently told me.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the fact is that both Cuccinelli and McDonnell have spent most of their careers in low-paying public service jobs. McAuliffe and Warner, both accused of being anti-capitalist regulators by the GOP, actually made millions in the free market system that they supposedly disdain.
Painting them as such might be a plus to rank and file voters, but in a strange way, it can put them at risk. Why, for instance, did Cuccinelli feel compelled to accept $13,000 in gifts from Jonnie Williams, the head of troubled Star Scientific, which is the object of shareholder lawyers and a federal probe? These included the use of vacation homes and expensive foreign cars. One vacation cost $3,000 and was a gift. Even an underpaid journalist like myself has paid $2,000 for a week at a beach house with my family. Why couldn’t he have rented his own place?
Williams is involved with a disputed state tax assessment of $860,000 and Cucccinelli has had to recuse himself as he has from another court case involving the fired executive chef who is seeking information that McDonnell’s family used publicly-funded goods like energy drinks, state-owned beach cottages and liquor for themselves.
The Alpha and coal business is rather obvious. Alpha took over Richmond-based Massey Energy in 2011 after the firm’s noxious corporate culture is said to have led to the deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia making it the worst deep mine disaster in the U.S. in 40 years. Massey’s CEO Don Blankenship was famous for bankrolling West Virginia judicial officials and other candidates. He went so far as to vacation with the State Supreme Court Judge on the French Riviera.
Alpha has a better safety record than Massey but is taking its lumps, having lost $2 billion in one quarter last year. Coal in general has been in the tank thanks to cheap natural gas and some new federal environmental rules plus a slow-down in Asia’s demand for coal to make steel.
Naturally, the beleaguered coal industry wants to beat back what it considers onerous regulations. It was a major bankroller of Mitt Romney’s campaign last year and Alpha was a big participant. Cuccinelli is perfect because he denies that carbon dioxide is responsible for climate change – a pet issue for King Coal. So, he was instrumental in the right wing’s counter attacks on the “War On Coal” last election.
What bothers me is not that Cuccinelli would flack for them but why did it cost $7,750 for him and his parents, paid for by Alpha, to visit Southwest Virginia. Last year I published a book on Massey and had made many trips to Southwest Virginia, including Alpha’s headquarters and a mine. I paid for it myself and I think it cost me maybe $200 in gas and a night or two at a two star motel at maybe $110 a night. I ate at Hardees where a steak biscuit is about $1.50 although I did splurge at a fancy Abingdon restaurant that had knock-out martinis with blue cheese filled olives.
But it didn’t cost me $7,750 or even one third of that.
Would McAuliffe or Warner have accepted a such largesse? I am sure they have moved and grooved with the rich and famous for years but both men are in a position to say “no thanks.”
And that is what Cuccinelli and McDonnell should have said, even if Virginia has hardly any rules on gifts.