Bob McDonnell Got Away with Corruption By Legalizing It

In 2011 and 2012 alone, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) received approximately $145,000 from the chief executive of a local dietary supplement manufacturer, showing his gratitude by personally endorsing products, arranging one-on-one pitch meetings with Virginia's secretary of health, and hosting a reception for a key product launch at the Executive Mansion. At the same time, the dietary supplement firm Star Scientific Inc. was embroiled in a $700k tax dispute with the State Attorney General's Office. As much as this might scream conflict-of-interest, the most troubling thing about this story might just be that it was all perfectly legal.

McDonnell's relationship with Johnnie Williams, CEO of Star Scientific, dates from his days campaigning for the governorship, when in McDonnell's words the two became close "personal friends." Star Scientific donated lavishly to McDonnell's electoral campaign, cozying up so closely to Virginia's incoming First Family that Mrs. McDonnell saw fit to mention to Williams that she would need a new dress for the inauguration, preferably an "Oscar de la Renta." Williams was on the point of acquiescing when one of the governor's top aids commented that such a gift was, perhaps, not allowed (though that did not stop Mrs. McDonnell from receiving a $15,000 gift from Mr. Williams one year later — at Bergdorf Goodman).

In more recent years, Williams has given a long-term, no-interest "loan" to a real estate corporation owned by the McDonnells (to the tune of $70,000), covered $20,000 worth of expenses at both of his daughters' weddings, financed Mrs. McDonnell's $6,500 Rolex gift to her husband, and given thousands more of in-kind gifts in the form of transportation on his privately-owned jet along with the use of his lake house, boat, and Richmond mansion. Oh and let's not forget the $6,700 box of dietary supplements he gave for the Governor's personal use. After all, Bob McDonnell is an honest man and cannot be expected to endorse or peddle a state's reputation for a product he does not truly, truly believe in.

One can be forgiven for expecting McDonnell's resignation any day now, or at the very least, months of riveting courtroom drama. Public officials are required, after all, to publicly disclose campaign contributions and any donations they receive while in office that may create a conflict of interest. Perhaps on the basis of sheer incredulity alone (and not a little public outcry) McDonnell's failure to disclose his financial relationship with Williams is the subject of two misconduct inquiries in Virginia and a separate investigation by the FBI. Unfortunately, per the financial disclosure laws currently on Virginia's books, McDonnell might just get away with not so much as a reprimand.

Though Virginia does require the disclosure of all donations made directly to a public official, there are no requirements for personal gifts made to a governor's family or donations that directly affect McDonnell's financial obligations. That latter exception includes his his LLC, a loophole that Williams did well to drive a truck straight through. Williams, being a "personal friend," eludes state disclosure laws that exempt gifts made to a politician's family, who seemingly have no legislative or executive authority. However, the lack of any official power did not stop Mrs. McDonnell from traveling to Florida three days before her daughter's wedding to personally advocate for Star Science, or from insisting that her husband host a lavish kickoff party for the company's new product, an unproven anti-inflammatory supplement named Anatabloc that is crucial to the company's financial viability. There's even a photo of the Governor holding the pillbox, though don't be surprised if it's taken down by the time you get to this link.


Fortunately, we downloaded it for you.

Though the governor denied any wrongdoing associated with the reception, his staff quickly pointed out that the state's expenses were paid by McDonnell's political action committee, not the taxpayer. The governor has also made clear that Star Science has received "no government contracts, economic incentives, or grants." Star Science's quietly-arranged meeting with the state secretary of health led to naught, with the secretary commenting that Anatabloc was simply "not ready for prime time."  On a Norfolk radio show, McDonnell insisted that "These have been the disclosure rules of Virginia. I'm following those. To, after the fact, impose some new requirements on an official when you haven't kept record of other gifts given to family members or things like that obviously wouldn't be fair."

Perhaps he has a point, though voters might be forgiven for expecting something less than justice when State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, McDonnell's would-be successor, also recently revealed owning a large financial stake in Star Scientific. The thousands of dollars in similar "gifts" that Cuccinelli has received from Williams go without saying.

To quote Hamlet, something stinks in the state of Virginia. It may not be illegal, it may just be bad press, but America will hardly be consoled by knowing that her elected officials may escape prison not by evading corruption, but by legalizing it.