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The only limit on gifts to public officials is a requirement that they disclose the swag, but McDonnell found it’s easy to avoid that rule.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
The latest revelation about the June 2011 wedding of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s daughter makes it all the harder to swallow his explanation that a businessman’s $15,000 check to cover the catering was a gift to her, not him — so, by law, he needn’t have reported it. And didn’t.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported it had obtained documents showing McDonnell had signed the catering contract, assuming financial responsibility, and had put down almost $8,000 in deposits.
Even before that story broke, the smell was building around the poached jumbo shrimp served courtesy of Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
On Monday, McDonnell spoke directly to reporters for the first time about the catering payment, but wouldn’t answer questions about whether Williams had given other gifts to his family.
And if the businessman had? Well, as the governor’s spokesman noted in earlier, written responses to reporters’ queries, Virginia law allows public officials to accept gifts. The only requirement is that any gift worth $50 or more must be disclosed to the public. And gifts of any amount to family members are not reportable.
The odor around this story comes not only from a suspicion that the governor might have run afoul of the law, but that this takes some doing — so thin are Virginia’s defenses against influence peddling. The only limit on gifts and political contributions to its public officials is that they have to disclose them. Under most, but not all, circumstances.
In this case, McDonnell has offered a second explanation for not disclosing the catering payment: Officials, too, are exempt from reporting gifts they get from family and friends. Quite right — and the governor and first lady consider Williams and his wife friends. A spokesman told The Post the couples have known each other for about five years.
Fast friendships develop rapidly, it seems, around the free use of a corporate jet — trips the governor reported, as required by law, among the more than $120,000 in donations and gifts he and his political action committee received from Williams and his struggling company, Star Scientific Inc.
Just days after Williams wrote his check for the wedding and days before the big event, first lady Maureen McDonnell flew to Florida to speak to doctors and potential investors about anatabine, the key chemical in a dietary supplement developed by Star Scientific — and upon which its future likely rests.
Three months later, the official launch of Anatabloc was held at the governor’s mansion. There was no quid pro quo in any of this, the administration says; promoting Virginia business is part of the governor’s job.
What is clear is that the commonwealth’s financial disclosure law — supposedly its protection against going up for bid to special interests — has loopholes so big elephants could get through. Or donkeys.
Virginia needs a tighter law, and an independent ethics commission as watchdog over it.
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