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McDonnell owes Virginians a full explanation about gifts from Jonnie Williams Sr.
Friday, July 12, 2013
As the water around him gets deeper, Gov. Bob McDonnell can’t wait for a lifeboat to rescue him from a swirling cesspool of scandal. For the sake of his own credibility and for the state he leads, the governor needs to paddle his way to dry land and explain himself.
We knew before this week that McDonnell was guilty of bad judgment in his cozy relationship with a Virginia businessman whose company has been embroiled in a decade-long tax dispute with the state. McDonnell and his family have accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of unreported gifts from Jonnie Williams Sr., including catering for a daughter’s wedding, a luxury shopping trip for the first lady and a Rolex watch that has adorned the governor’s wrist. McDonnell allowed Williams to use the governor’s mansion as a stage to promote his company’s new dietary supplement, despite red flags raised by members of his staff.
McDonnell has said little about the gift controversy because of ongoing state and federal investigations. He insists he has complied with the law and afforded Williams no special benefits in exchange for the businessman’s largesse. But McDonnell’s troubles, both real and political, reached a new level this week when The Washington Post reported that Williams gave $70,000 last year to a real estate corporation owned by McDonnell and his sister, and that the governor did not disclose it as a gift or loan. McDonnell’s wife also received a previously unreported $50,000 check from Williams last year, according The Post.
If McDonnell is to govern with any authority in the last six months of his term, he must dispense with lawyerly evasion and level with the people he was elected to serve. He should fully disclose all gifts, contributions and financial assistance he and his family have received from Williams, even if the state’s laughably lax ethics laws don’t require it. And he should reveal what, if anything, Williams sought in return.
If McDonnell doesn’t clear the air, the slow drip of unsavory revelations will undermine his administration’s important unfinished work and intrude on the election to choose his successor. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, already has to answer for his own ties to Williams and his office’s handling of a tax dispute involving Williams’ company, Star Scientific.
McDonnell isn’t the only one with an urgent task at hand. When the General Assembly convenes in January, it should immediately enact a ban on all but token gifts to elected officials. Lawmakers also should strengthen financial disclosure laws and establish an independent ethics commission to police the system.
Defenders of Virginia’s flimsy ethics laws insist no gift bans are needed as long as officials disclose the dinners and lake house getaways that friends and special interests buy for them. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, they say.
But no amount of Lysol can tame the stink emanating from Capitol Square this week. And Virginians shouldn’t be asked to hold their noses any longer. Only lawmakers can clean up the system and restore public confidence after this season of scandal.
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