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Virginia law doesn’t require elected officials to disclose gifts given to their family members, but Gov. Bob McDonnell is facing questions about a donor picking up the $15,000 catering bill for his daughter’s 2011 wedding. The FBI is currently looking into the relationship between Virginia’s first family and the donor, the CEO of Star Scientific, a nutritional supplement company, and some are calling for ethics reform in the Commonwealth. A reporter covering the story brings us up to speed on the players involved and possible fallout.
- Rosalind Helderman Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, pizzas' unique contribution to enhancing Washington's food culture.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, what was likely a very happy family affair for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell -- the wedding of one of his daughter's at the executive mansion in 2011 -- has turned into a bit of headache with questions about ethics reform in the Old Dominion swirling after it came to light that a donor who heads a company under federal investigation and party to several shareholder lawsuits paid the catering bill.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe generous gift is legal under the Commonwealth's current ethics laws, which allow lawmakers to accept gifts with unlimited value and has no requirement that gifts to family members be disclosed. But like many stories that raise questions about ethics, this one is, well, complicated. Here to help us understand the big picture is Rosalind Helderman. She's a reporter who covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post. Ros, good to have you aboard again. Thanks for joining us.
MS. ROSALIND HELDERMANThanks so much for having me.
NNAMDISetting up with the caterer -- settling up with the caterer after a wedding isn't something that a lot of people look forward to, but how did the bill for a 2011 wedding in Virginia's first family end up sparking serious ethics questions within the Commonwealth and become part of an investigation being handled now by the FBI?
HELDERMANSo these events all occurred in 2011. So for a long time, no one knew about these things, but it turns out that the catering bill for the wedding was paid by a man named Johnny Williams. He's the CEO of a company called Star Scientific. They used to be a tobacco company, and now they make dietary supplements.
HELDERMANMr. Williams and his company, it turns out, were very entangled with the governor and his wife. We can talk more about that, but apparently he offered as a -- what we've been by the governor was a wedding gift to his daughter to pay that catering bill. It was $15,000, and he wrote a check directly to the caterer.
NNAMDIThe wedding gift is not the only one that Star Scientific CEO has made to the first family. Tell us a little bit about the company, the man who heads it and his relationship with the McDonnells.
HELDERMANSo you're right. The company and Mr. Williams have given a lot of -- both campaign donations and also personal gifts. The campaign donations mostly came in allowing the governor both before he was elected and then after to use the company's private plane to get to campaign events and political events and some personal events as well. He also lent the governor his lake house for a family vacation.
HELDERMANHe also allowed the governor to drive his Ferrari around the state. That's a car that retails for $190,000. So he provided a number of gifts and donations. The governor has said that he and his wife knew Mr. Williams -- know them now for about five years, which means at the time of the wedding, they would have known them for about three years. He says that they're family friends. But there are some questions about just how close and how well he knew them prior to these events occurring.
NNAMDIIn case you're joining us, we're talking with Rosalind Helderman, reporter who covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post, about ethical questions being raised about both the governor and the attorney general's behavior in the Commonwealth of Virginia. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIDo you think Virginia's ethics laws for elected officials should be changed? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. But, Ros, part of any governor's job is to be a booster for businesses in his or her state. How does the relationship the McDonnells have with Star Scientific's leadership hue to that norm and where, if anywhere else, if anywhere, is it atypical?
HELDERMANSo the governor has indeed said sort of in his defense of some of the actions he took that promoted Star that indeed it's his job to promote state businesses, and his wife's job to do the same, and that's what they were doing. The company is based in Glen Allen, outside of Richmond. What we understand the FBI is now asking questions about is whether there was some kind of inappropriate quid pro quo.
HELDERMANBut the timeline does not look good for the governor. Three days before the wedding where Mr. Williams paid the catering, three days before that wedding took place, Mrs. McDonnell, the first lady of Virginia, flew to Florida where she attended a gathering of doctors and investors who are interested in a new dietary supplement that this company was about to introduce to market.
HELDERMANAnd we've been told by people who attended that she actually stood up and spoke at that event. She said that she supported the product, that she believed it could be used in Virginia to lower health care costs. A couple of months after the wedding in August 2011, when the company actually formally introduced this nutritional supplement -- it's called an Anatabloc -- to the market, they actually held a luncheon at the governor's mansion as part of the official launch.
HELDERMANThey invited some doctors and investors to sit down and hear more about the product, and that was an event that was organized by the first lady's office. But both the first lady and the governor were in attendance.
NNAMDIThe governor himself has stayed relatively quiet about the investigation into Star Scientific and questions about his disclosures, but he did open up a bit yesterday. What has he said so far?
HELDERMANRight after the story broke, he went away on a prescheduled visit to China, a trade mission, and he was gone for about two and a half weeks. He's now back, and so he is facing a lot of questions. And on WTOP yesterday, he spoke quite at length about -- he says that this has not impaired his ability to govern. He says that the company did not receive any inappropriate help from the state that there was no quid pro quo.
HELDERMANBut he did say, you know, he's been blessed to have friends, and he said that Mr. Williams was a friend, and he did pay for this wedding gift and provided some other gifts. And the governor himself said this has been very difficult for his family, but he understands the questions and agrees that there might be some need to revisit the ethics laws in Virginia to look at whether they're as tight as they should be.
NNAMDIThere's a small question I have in my mind of tense there. Did he say that Johnny Williams was a friend or Johnny Williams is a friend?
HELDERMANThat's a great question. I should go back and look. I believe he said that he is a friend.
HELDERMANI would wonder how close they are these days, but I think he said he is a friend.
NNAMDIThe predicament the governor finds himself in has prompted at least one fellow official, Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, who hopes to move into the governor's mansion next to go back and take a closer look at his own records. What did he find?
HELDERMANHe found that he had not disclosed the full extent of his own relationship with Mr. Williams. This is where the story all gets a little more complicated, but Ken Cuccinelli also has known Mr. Williams for a number of years, also says that he considers him a friend. And he had previously disclosed that he had received some gifts from Mr. Williams.
HELDERMANBut he just went back on Friday last week and announced that there were some gifts he forgot to disclose, including a vacation at Mr. Williams' lake house just this past summer, including another vacation at Mr. Williams' lake house over Thanksgiving of 2010 where the turkey dinner was actually supplied for Mr. Cuccinelli and his family by Johnny Williams.
HELDERMANThere's also the matter of stock that the attorney general owns in the company, in Star Scientific. He had disclosed that prior to all the stories starting to appear in the last few weeks, but he did fail to disclose it for a while as required by law. He went back and quietly amended his financial disclosure forms just this past summer to note that he owned more than $10,000, which is the reporting threshold for stock, more than $10,000 worth of Star stock, and he's owned that we now know since about 2010.
NNAMDIOur guest is reporter. She's a reporter who covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post. We're talking about the ethics questions posed in the Commonwealth of Virginia in an event or matters involving both the governor and the attorney general who is running for governor of the state. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIDo you think this investigation will have long-term repercussions for the politicians involved? Why, or why not? 800-433-8850. Ros, it turns out that under Virginia's ethics laws, which your colleague Laura Vozzella writes are among some of the most lax in the nation. There's no requirement that family members of the governor disclose gifts. So why is the FBI interested in this case?
HELDERMANWhat we understand that they are exploring is whether there was some kind of inappropriate quid pro quo. Disclosure, of course, is a federal -- I'm sorry -- it's a state issue. They're interested in whether there might be violations of federal corruption statutes in this case. You're right. In Virginia, politicians only have to disclose gifts that are given to them, provided there's at least $50 in value.
HELDERMANBut, of course, you can start to look at a series of gifts given to a family potentially and just potentially wonder whether the elected official was himself benefiting from that gift even if it was technically and agreed amongst the family to be a gift to a family member. For instance, in the case of the wedding, the governor had actually signed the contract for the catering.
HELDERMANSo he had assumed, you know, legal financial obligation to pay for the wedding. And he has paid some deposits for the catering prior to Mr. Williams stepping in. So was that a gift to his daughter, as he said, or was it actually a gift to him?
NNAMDIAnd, of course, former governor, now Sen. Tim Kaine on his disclosure forms has disclosed receiving as much as $18,000 in gifts, correct?
HELDERMANThat's right. It is not unusual for governors in Virginia to accept gifts, to disclose those gifts. That was a gift that was given to Gov. Kaine right after he was elected governor in 2005. He went on a vacation with his family to a Caribbean home of a donor and said that he values that use of the home for about a week being approximately $18,000 in value.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Dave in Springfield, Va. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVEGood afternoon. I'm actually not from Virginia. I'm from Massachusetts. But as I listen to your show, I hear the same problems that I hear all over as I drive across the country. And part of the problem is the people who make the rules find ways to exempt themselves. Congress just repealed (unintelligible) insider trader legislation that they had been -- you know, the loose law that basically said they couldn't benefit from knowledge they had. Massachusetts is known for being corrupt.
DAVEOur governor who avowed not to take money from casino interests while he was considering the casinos, then decides he's not going to run again. Since he's approved the casino law, he's taken hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign account from it. I think Virginia and all these states, the problem is that there is only one ethical behavior, and that's -- it's all quid pro quo. Don't take the money.
DAVEYet they all do. And I think that's why people in this country are so mad and why we have such little faith in our politicians to do the right thing because when time and time again, it shows when they're asked to do the right thing, they don't do the right thing. They always take the cash. It's always quid pro quo.
NNAMDIOK. Dave, thank you very much for your call. But how does Virginia's ethics laws when it comes to this, Ros Helderman, compare to other states?
HELDERMANThese laws vary from state to state for state officials. Virginia's laws -- Virginia's is what's known as a disclosure state, which is to say that you can do virtually anything you want provided you publicly disclose it. There are other states where the laws are much stricter where you're prohibited from accepting gifts above a certain value, where you're prohibited -- your family is prohibited from accepting gifts above a certain value.
HELDERMANOther states where you have to disclose gifts, you would also have to disclose the gifts to your family above a certain dollar figure. So Virginia's laws are considered particularly lax. And one of the things that politicians who defend the laws here often say is they say, look, limits don't work for the reasons that your caller just mentioned.
HELDERMANBut the best thing is the disinfectant of public attention, so that's why being a disclosure state is better. No limits, but you have to disclose everything. But I think this case shows, you know, there are certainly areas where in Virginia, you don't even have to disclose and who knows what's going on that, you know, that hasn't been disclosed and doesn't legally have to be disclosed.
NNAMDIHere is Larry in Silver Spring, Md. Larry, your turn.
LARRYThanks for taking my call, Kojo. I think the governor is confused between what is legal and what is ethical. And I think this is a problem that a lot of our officials have. Just because you can do it legally doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. And I think we've seen this over and over and over again. I think, when you talk about ethics laws, it's almost actually oxymoron in my vocabulary. And that's about it.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to indulgent that oxymoron for a second because, Ros, Virginia's General Assembly has talked about updating its ethics laws before. Just how loud are the rumblings in Richmond about possible reform growing and as this story continues to unfold?
HELDERMANQuite loud. There's, of course, a campaign going on in Virginia right now. There'll be a gubernatorial campaign and a general assembly election in November. And so this has gotten caught up in that, and politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for changes in the law as the result of this story. What we'll have to see is whether that drumbeat continues long enough. The general assembly will not be in session until January of next year, so we'll have to see if that appetite remains after the voters have already gone to the polls and some months have passed.
NNAMDIWell, both of the major party candidates in that upcoming election seemed to be calling for changes in the law. But the story really touches one of them, the Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, who is running for governor and our governor, Bob McDonnell, who it has long been speculated has an eye on a national office. Any sense yet of whether this will hurt either of them in the long run, or is it too soon to tell?
HELDERMANIt might be too soon to tell. There certainly has been an enormous amount of public attention on this case across Virginia. The governor, now that's he's back from Asia trip, is now getting questions wherever he goes. It's hard to believe it's not going to have some kind of impact both on the governor's future national ambitions and also the attorney general's gubernatorial campaign. How much of an impact, we'll have to see.
NNAMDIRosalind Helderman is a reporter who covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post. Ros, thank you for joining us.
HELDERMANThanks so much for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, pizza and how it's contributing to the Washington area's food culture. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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