The Secrets of the Governor’s Mansion

The Virginia governor's mansion: If only walls could talk.
The Virginia governor’s mansion: If only walls could talk.

by James A. Bacon

Enough is enough. GiftGate has expanded beyond the point where there are  reasonable explanations that Governor Bob McDonnell can offer for his behavior. The drip-drip-drip of revelations has steadily eroded my confidence since May, when I offered a lukewarm defense of the governor in “Still Looking for the Scandal.” Now there is little trust left to drain.

I defended McDonnell two months ago on the grounds that, yes, while the gifts bestowed by Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., were unusual and the endorsement by First Lady Maureen McDonnell of Star’s dietary supplements unseemly, there was no evidence that McDonnell had done any special favors for Williams. At the time I did note, however, that I was more than willing to reappraise the situation if more substantive information turns up.

Well, more substantive information has turned up. While McDonnell still can cling to his argument that there was no quid pro quo, the latest story by the Washington Post prompts the question: If McDonnell wasn’t giving the Vitamin VIP special treatment, what the hell was going on?

Let us refresh our memories. Williams gave:

  • $9,650 in gifts to McDonnell, including private plane trips and the use of a vacation house at Smith Mountain Lake. The governor listed these gifts in his personal disclosure forms.
  • $15,000 to pay for catering at the June 2011 wedding of the governor’s daughter Cailin. McDonnell did not disclose that gift on the grounds that Cailin, not he, was the beneficiary.
  • $10,000 to the governor’s daughter Jeanine to help defray costs at her May 2013 wedding.
  • $15,000 to Maureen McDonnell to cover a New York shopping spree — apparently in Williams’ company — where she bought a suede Oscar de la Renta jacket, two pairs of designer shoes, a Louis Vuitton handbag and a designer dress. The gifts were not disclosed.
  • $6,500 for a Rolex watch. McDonnell received the watch from wife Maureen but evaded questions as to whether he knew that it had been paid for by Williams. The gift was not disclosed.
  • $70,000 to MoBo Real Estate Partners, a limited-liability partnership formed in 2005 by McDonnell and his sister, also named Maureen. McDonnell viewed the payment as a loan, which does not have to be disclosed, rather than a gift, which does.
  • $50,000 to Maureen McDonnell in 2011, also described as a loan related to the real estate venture.

That amounts to more than $175,000. Who knows what else the ongoing investigation may turn up.

There are a number of issues here.

First is the trust issue. McDonnell has been less than forthcoming. He has clammed up tight, denying any impropriety, even as more and more information leaked out to the press. The lack of candor creates the impression — perhaps unfairly — that the governor has something to hide or, at the very least, that he finds the public revelation of the gifts to be embarrassing. Whatever his motives, he has lost the trust even of those, like me, inclined to trust him. My reaction now: What’s the next headline? What is there that we don’t know about?

Second, there is the what-the-hell-is-going-on issue. If Williams were plying McDonnell with personal favors in exchange for some special consideration from the governor, at least that’s something the public would understand — you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But there is no evidence that such favors were exchanged. True, the McDonnells have helped raise the visibility of Star Scientific’s Anatabloc roll-out, but it can be argued that governors and first ladies routinely promote the products of Virginia businesses.

(The obvious question is this: Did the McDonnells circumvent normal protocols in assisting the Anatabloc roll-out? Lots of companies would like to get the governor to tout their products and services. What is the procedure for getting that done? Who are the gatekeepers? What boxes have to be checked off? Were the protocols adhered to in the case of Star Scientific? )

Star Scientific also has a tax dispute with the Commonwealth of Virginia. But that litigation is normally the purview of the Attorney General’s office, over which McDonnell has no authority. Of course, due to Williams’ involvement with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the AG’s office has had to recuse itself from that case. As messy as the details appear, it’s not an area where McDonnell has, or even could have, intervened on Williams’ behalf.

Reserving the right to change my mind when new evidence presents itself, it appears that there was no quid pro quo. But that raises a whole new question. What kind of relationship exists between Williams and the McDonnell family? Whatever it is, no matter how close, it is not a normal relationship. Friends do not bestow $125,000 upon other friends, not even close friends. Friends also do not accept gifts of that magnitude. Most people hew to the ethic, “I can’t possibly accept a gift like that. I am not in a position to reciprocate. I would be indebted to you in a way that I feel I cannot repay.”

That’s what offends me about McDonnell’s behavior. Normal people just don’t act like that! Indeed, when you’re governor, you go overboard to avoid putting yourself in a position where you feel personally indebted to anyone because you never know what kind of favor might be asked. For all the differences I’ve had with his transportation policy, I always considered McDonnell to be a decent, upstanding individual. But I cannot understand how he would accept such gifts in good conscience.

It would be helpful to know more about Williams. A big Republican, he has cultivated friendships with other like-minded Virginia politicians. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, he personally gave $25,000 to the [Jerry] Kilgore for Governor campaign, and Star Scientific gave $101,000 more. Now Kilgore is Williams’ attorney. Star Scientific contributed $80,000 to McDonnell’s Opportunity Virginia PAC and $29,000 to his gubernatorial campaign. Interestingly, he has donated nothing to any of Cuccinelli’s campaigns, but he has given roughly $19,000 in gifts, primarily a box of food supplements and use of his lake house, including “Thanksgiving dinner and lodging” in 2010.

But the documented Cooch connection pales in comparison to the undocumented McDonnell connection, which apparently runs deep. According to the Washington Post (cited in the New York Times):

The first family of Virginia considers Mr. Williams and his wife, Celeste, “family friends.” The source of this deep friendship, The Post tells us, was a series of flights on Mr. Williams’ corporate jet during Mr. McDonnell’s 2009 campaign.

Until we understand the dynamics of that family friendship, we will never know what to make of GiftGate.

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23 responses to “The Secrets of the Governor’s Mansion”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    The “there is no proof of a quid pro quo” argument is weaker than Michael Moore’s willpower at the buffet table. That debate has been held in the Abramoff, et al cases and the courts have determined that no proof of quid pro quo is required for a conviction.

    If I went around my neighborhood and gave every policeman who patrols there an envelope with $1,000 in it there would be no quid pro quo. However, if those same policemen were ever to find me driving somewhat over the speed limit I’d expect some latitude. Maybe a verbal warning to slow down. Jim – is that OK in your view?

    Richmond is a corrupt cesspool of crony capitalist businesses and “bought and paid for” state politicians. I’ve been making this point for years while most other contributors to this blog have dreamed up one reason after another to refute the obvious. Perhaps the McDonnell scandal (and it is a scandal) will be enough to convince people that Virginia needs to be cleaned up by new politicians who come from outside of the Richmond elite.

    As for the McDonnell affair being unique – spare me! The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond has accepted $3.1M in various “gifts” over the last 10 years. And that’s what got reported. Who knows how many more “gifts” were made to the children, spouses or business concerns of state politicians?

    Terry McAuliffe has made the common sense promise that he will ban anything more than token gifts to the governor and his family is elected. Where is Ken Corruptinelli on this matter? Oh wait, I forgot – he’s already taken gifts he didn’t disclose while his Office of Attorney General litigated with the gift giver’s company.

    Proof of quid pro quo as a defense against taking unreported bribes. Only in Richmond!

  2. Breckinridge Avatar

    Agreed. The loopholes in the existing disclosure laws, if closed in a way that would force retroactive reporting, would reveal a fascinating world. Many are heavily invested in the status quo and making significant changes will be nothing short of a major fight. Who will make them do something — the League of Women Voters? The WaPo editorial board? Only pressure from back home will work.

    I don’t care what McAuliffe thinks but key legislators need to be forced to commit to reform. It is a campaign year after all.

    ALL gifts, meals, anything of value over say $5 or $10 need to be reported. ALL gifts to any family member in the household from any person with an interest in state government need to be reported. I’m willing to allow gifts rather than ban them, but real reporting requirements with a penalty that includes loss of office and even criminal sanctions will get their attention.

    The Governor’s problem is that the “I didn’t have to report it” defense is now irrelevant. It is too much, too overwhelming to be simple friendship.

  3. Darrell Avatar

    The Cooch connection is kind of irrelevant. The CURRENT governor is sucking the life out of the entire party. Who else has been involved with Williams? GA? RPV? What other gift givers may be playing the same game? This has a long way to go.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Darrell and Breckinridge:

    I have to disagree with both of you (to an extent).

    You should care what McAuliffe thinks and the Cooch connection is relevant.

    McAuliffe has pledged to take a simple, credible and effective first step in combating the pernicious effects of “gifts” on Virginia’s government. He has pledged to sign an executive order forbidding himself or members of his family from accepting any gift with a value of more than $100 while in office. That action would be within his purview as governor. It would send a clear signal to the “gift” givers that there is no reason to offer him or his family “gifts”. Moreover, it would establish his bona fides in pushing the General Assembly to legislate and end to the utterly absurd practice of giving “gifts” to elected officials.

    Cooch is relevant because he has found himself unable to repeat McAuliffe’s simple and credible pledge. The obvious implication is that Cuccinelli has no intention of banning gifts for himself or his family. Given his history of accepting undocumented gifts, I guess this is predictable. One must also conclude that he has no intention of pressing the General Assembly from passing any anti-“gift” legislation. After all, how can Cuccinelli push for “gift” reform when he won’t wean himself and his family off the Richmond “gift teat”?

    Cuccinelli’s lack of action on this matter confirms his status as a Richmond insider and protector of the Richmond status quo. Unfortunately for Mr Cuccinelli, he may soon finding himself defending a status quo that results in the sitting governor being removed from office.

  5. […] thing that even some of Virginia’s most conservative political bloggers — see here and here — are coming to recognize. It’s quite a fall from grace. McDonnell’s name had […]

  6. larryg Avatar

    No public servant from the Gov down to the lowest paid deputy should be taking money from other private citizens – period.

    If Warner or Kaine have taken money for their personal use from others, they too should be equally reviled.

    I’m still aghast that we have apologists for this; NO WONDER Va has such loose standards – apparently citizens themselves apparently find it acceptable if the offender is in the same political party that they support!

    No wonder Virginia is such a cesspool corruption! People are “ok” with it as long as the offenders are died-in-the wool RPV…!!!!

    If McDonnell ran for election again, right now, against McAuliff – he’d still win, right?

    I would have thought that McD had thrown his chances away to run for Senator but now I’m not quite so sure that he’d not win anyhow.


  7. Neil Haner Avatar
    Neil Haner

    “No public servant from the Gov down to the lowest paid deputy should be taking money from other private citizens – period.”

    Okay, people, there is a line to be drawn somewhere.

    So if I’m a single 20-something guy dating a single 20-something girl who works in the AG’s office, I can’t buy her a gift? Or worse, what if the governor has a single daughter of dating age (as McDonnell did), are their rules on what gifts her suitors can buy her? Maybe they just can’t buy her a gift worth more than $100?

    Even a governor and/or their spouse has close friends who may want to buy him or her a nice birthday or anniversary gift.

    Keep in mind, the bans on Federal employees receiving gifts (which has been oft referenced on this website in recent weeks) only prohibits gifts from people doing or hoping to do business with the Federal employee’s agency.

    The question becomes “where is that line drawn?” Do we want to just double down and say the Governor and his family have to turn down every gift they’re offered over 4 years? Sorry, no birthday gifts for little Timmy from his classmates, his dad got elected Governor last year! Cuccinelli has 7 children… do you want to be the one to police who’s giving the younger ones a birthday gift, or decide what their boyfriends and girlfriends are allowed to give them once they’re older?

    It’s just not as black and white as some of you want to make it.

    1. Neil, I agree, banning “all” gifts not only to the governor but to family members would lead to absurdities like the ones you suggest. I’m inclined to think that all gifts over, say, $100 in value not given by family members to other family members should be *reported*. (And the $100 should be indexed for the CPI).

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        No! No reporting of gifts. No gifts over $100 other than between family members. If you want to go on vacation with your friends – fine. Pay your share of the costs.

        Enough of this bullcrap.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      McAuliffe set the limit at $100. That seems fair to me. You can take my daughter to dinner but keep the tab under $100. Or, my daughter will go “Dutch Treat”. I believe that McAuliffe’s plan is that family members may give family members gifts.

      And yes – you have to turn down gifts from your girlfriend or boyfriend that are worth more than $100 during the four years that your Dad or Mom is governor.

      This is not as gray as some of you want to make it.

      Some of my childhood friends work for the federal government. I spent 30 years working for a company that did about 8% of its revenue with the federal government. I was on the commercial side and did not work for the federal government not solicit work from the federal government.

      My friends insisted on paying for half of everything even though I made considerably more money than they did and offered to “pick up the check”.

      This really isn’t that hard.

    3. larryg Avatar

      Neil – you don’t take money from a company that is doing business with the govt agency you are employed in.

      the higher up your position – the worse it looks so you don’t do it.

      and if you are really scrupulous – then you disclose gifts that could be viewed as questionable.

      In other words – you play it straight and don’t play the loopholes.

      Looking at the list of gifts with McDonnell.. it’s hard to believe anyone would look at the total list and still come away thinking the Gov got caught up in a “catch 22” situation. Maybe once… not this many.

      but even ONCE – a Roylex is NOT a birthday gift one receives from an acquaintance.. A hundred dollar gift, maybe, a multi-thousand dollar gift – you gotta be kidding guy.

      there is no way to picture this other than butt ugly….

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    We’re close friends, right? In that case, I would GLADLY accept $125,000 from you!

    1. Have you no sense of propriety, sir? Shame! Shame!

  9. Cover Up Avatar
    Cover Up

    This is corruption at its best. This guy and the AG are dirty. You can’t polish this terd. Call it the way you see it and get him out of office ASAP.who is paying his legal bill? Are the taxpayers paying for this mess of is his good friend cutting a check to the Governor’s wife?

  10. Richard Avatar

    McDonnell was supposed to be the voice of Republican reason in Virginia, the Republican who wasn’t scary.

  11. larryg Avatar

    well.. he wasn’t bat-crap crazy like the Cooch looks to be …McD is just another run-of-the-mill sleaze….

    I still scratch my head.. the man cremated his reputation over a few thousand bucks.. WTF! It’s like he took a stupid pill.

  12. Cover Up Avatar
    Cover Up

    Are the taxpayers paying the legal bill for this clown show? Please someone look into who is paying the bill.

  13. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Perhaps you guys are missing the point. Likely the Gov. simply has a problem with women named Maureen. It’s a akin to Philippine President Marcos’ problem with his woman named Imeda – just couldn’t her to stop buying those damn high heeled shoes. Same with Daddy’s daughters too.

  14. larryg Avatar

    interesting theory there Reed….

  15. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    There is loads of precedence for this phenomena. Man as great as Lincoln have been flummoxed by their wives and kids. Abe could bring the Senators and Generals in line. Could bring a Jury to tears. Could force the Confederacy to its knees. But, even with the full power of Presidency behind him, Lincoln was clueless at controlling his wife Mary Todd or his kids. They ran wild over him in front of whomever they pleased.

  16. Particularly appreciated Reed’s last comment. During the past few weeks, I have often thought of Lincoln’s exasperation with his wife’s shopping sprees and disregard for her household budget. I’m not saying that this is precisely the same thing, but it does ring some bells for those of us who have lived through (in some sense) Lincoln’s tribulations.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Yes, agree. What a great study in psychology. A recent book on Lincoln by Gettysburg professor Guelzo is wonderful, revealing of Lincoln’s intellectual growth. And to degree, his emotional as well, but done in first class way. It’s Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President, by Allen C. Guelzo. All of his Lincoln books are exceptional.

  17. larryg Avatar

    so these gifts took place without McDonalds knowledge and approval and he would have said “no” if he had known?

    I’d accept that statement from the Gov.

    But he’d have to say it.

    And in fact, if true, what the heck is he waiting for?

    Can he get out of this?


    1. – make the statement that these transactions were not his and he knew nothing about them.

    2.- Propose new laws that not only make it illegal for family members to accept gifts but max the gift itself at some nominal amount – perhaps the same as applies to state govt employees.

    so.. let’s do it.

    I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt if he is willing to improve the situation.

    He made a mistake. He addresses it in policy. We move on.

    I’d say the ball is THOROUGHLY in his court.

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