Questions over Va. governor’s relationship with donor goes national

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is under increasing pressure as more details emerge about the gifts and checks he and his family have accepted from businessman Jonnie Williams. (WTOP File Photo)

WASHINGTON – Virginia’s embattled governor is once again attracting national attention as details come out about the thousands of dollars in cash and gifts he received from a donor and businessman whose company the governor has helped promote.

MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow did a segment on the scandal noting that Gov. Bob McDonnell was once touted as a possible candidate for vice president.

Her segment comes after two Democratic state senators, Barbara Favola of Arlington and Chap Peterson of Fairfax, called for McDonnell to resign if he doesn’t explain the gifts.

“I just don’t see how he can continue in office with people’s confidence if he doesn’t step forward and explain himself,” says Peterson. “If he’s not willing to do that or not able to do that he does need to step down.”

Peterson says it’s not just a legal matter, but one of credibility.

McDonnell has about seven months left in his term.

It’s not just Democrats who are uncomfortable with the scope of the gifts. Delegate Bob Marshall, a conservative Republican from Manassas, says this is not just about football tickets or a free dinner.

“This is clearly way beyond that in scope and it’s got people concerned and I think rightly so,” says Marshall.

The Washington Post has reported that McDonnell’s family including his wife, daughters and sister have benefited from cash payments or loans from businessman Jonnie Williams at the same time McDonnell and his wife were promoting Williams’ company Star Scientific Inc., and its products.

Williams has also made donations and given gifts to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor. However Cuccinelli has disclosed those contributions.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says the scandal has made the issue of donor influence a major part of the upcoming governor’s race between Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAulliffe, who are running to succeed McDonnell.

“It’s going to be a very nasty, unpleasant fall. And people need to get ready for it,” says Sabato. “There are loads of people like Jonnie Williams who have interests before the government and who suddenly become very close friends with people in high office,” he says.

“You expect public officials at the highest levels plus their staff to have the sense to keep the elected officials away from these people,” says Sabato. “Clearly that wasn’t done here.”

Marshall says the problem may be with state law. He has already written legislation to be introduced during the legislative session next January that would require more disclosure, including gifts to family members.

McDonnell has not been charged with anything. But because of an ongoing federal investigation into Star Scientific and a connected criminal case involving the former chef at the Executive Mansion, the governor has not spoken in detail about the gifts.

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