Virginia’s Rolex-wearing governor is a political time bomb.
Bob McDonnell’s career is badly damaged, if not destroyed. It is a casualty of his continuing dissembling over tens of thousands of dollars in undisclosed gifts to him; his wife, Maureen; and their children from Jonnie Williams Sr., the dietary supplement executive. This includes a $6,500 Rolex watch that has vanished from McDonnell’s wrist.
Fallout could also take out fellow Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the party’s candidate for governor.
He, too, has partaken of Uncle Jonnie’s largesse. Some of it Cuccinelli said he’d forgotten to disclose: A trip to New York and two family vacations to Williams’ lake house, one of which included Thanksgiving dinner. More troubling may be Cuccinelli’s failure to report his stake in Williams-led Star Scientific while the Cuccinelli-led attorney general’s office, now relying on two private lawyers working for free, battles with the firm in court over $1.7 million in unpaid taxes and penalties.
To Democrats, this is a starting point in an arc of ethically specious conduct by Cuccinelli. A federal judge, herself a former lawyer in the attorney general’s office, expressed shock that an assistant attorney general under Cuccinelli was advising lawyers for two energy companies in potential litigation with Southwest Virginia landowners over lucrative natural gas rights.
This is not the continuum Republicans had in mind in nominating Cuccinelli to succeed McDonnell.
The conduct of both supports the Democratic message that Cuccinelli offers more of the same: More sketchy relationships with people who may have more money than sense. More tacky behavior that confirms the public’s worst suspicions about politicians. More reluctance by responsible, qualified people to enter government because they see it as a dumping ground for those unqualified to work elsewhere.
Never mind that the conduct of the Democratic messenger doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Terry McAuliffe, the gubernatorial nominee, has a long history of plumbing profits from politics: As a bank chairman, he helped arrange unsecured loans for Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign. As an investor, he turned a $100,000 stake in Global Crossing, a telecom that has since gone bust, into an $18 million windfall. As a manufacturer, he ran an electric-car company propped up with a shaky visa-for-sale scheme to lure Chinese backers.
This underscores what public opinion polls already show: That candidate likeability is glaringly absent in the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe contest. As Harry L. Wilson, a political scientist at Roanoke College, told The New York Times in April, “This may be the first time we don’t like our governor the day after the election.”
For McDonnell, it’s not enough to be liked. He wants to be loved. In policy and politics, McDonnell is always striving for harmony. Now, the discordant tick-tock of personal controversy alarms friends and amuses foes.
The governor’s rapid ascent to the national orbit from which he is plummeting Icarus-like and trappings beyond the McDonnells’ wildest dreams seemed to have instilled in this first family unmatched hubris.
It is fed, too, by Virginia law — or the absence of it.
Gifts from family and personal friends do not have to be disclosed by officials and candidates. This provides an almost impenetrable screen behind which they can conceal almost anything. As a lawyer, as a former legislator, as an ex-attorney general, McDonnell knows this. Given the crop of goodies harvested by McDonnell and his family, one wonders: Did he recognize the personal benefits of this technicality?
The law leaves it to the politicians to police themselves; to decide what they want to disclose — to limit, through the privilege of selective disclosure, a perception that high office is a big feed.
Early in this controversy, McDonnell invoked the personal-friend exemption, describing Jonnie Williams as a family pal of some five years and insisting he’d made the necessary disclosures. It was a gamble that paid off with grief. For three months, newspapers have heaped embarrassment on the McDonnells. In the months ahead, a state trial court and a federal grand jury could heap more.
Meantime, McDonnell is becoming skilled at ducking questions. He depicts his family as under siege. He concedes disclosure laws might be tightened by the General Assembly next year, though it won’t apply to him because he leaves office in January.
But he still goes about being governor.
That includes trumpeting announcements of even the skimpiest job-generating expansions by business. Canon Virginia will install new equipment at its copier factory in Newport News, adding about a dozen people to a payroll of 2,000. McDonnell said the improvements follow his recent talks with Canon executives at the company’s Tokyo headquarters.
What McDonnell didn’t say is that the plant was lured to Virginia in the early 1980s by another Rolex-wearing governor, Democrat Chuck Robb. Unlike McDonnell, it was never a secret from whom Robb got his solid-gold Rolex. It was a present from father-in-law Lyndon Johnson.
And he had a job that scandal is putting fully out of reach for McDonnell: president of the United States.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column Thursday on TimesDispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/ @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:33 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column Thursday on Times-Dispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/ @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:33 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).