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Virginia Governor Mired In Controversy Over Gifts, Loans


It's already been a long summer for Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. A steady stream of news reports have revealed gifts and loans he and his family accepted from a campaign donor, totaling some $145,000. McDonnell has been mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate, though with these revelations some now express doubt about his chances.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reports the trouble for McDonnell could also affect the Republican who hopes to succeed him in the governor's office.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Last year, everything was coming up roses for Bob McDonnell. He was thought to be one of the early favorites as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney. He chaired the Republican Governors Association and received a prime time speaking slot at the GOP convention last August.


GOVERNOR BOB MCDONNELL: We need a president who will say to a small businesswoman: Congratulations, we applaud your success. You did make that happen. You did build that in America.

NAYLOR: But less than a year later, few are cheering McDonnell as a constant drip of revelations has emerged about gifts and loans he and his family have received. They came from one Jonnie Williams, whose company, Star Scientific, manufactures dietary supplements. Among other things, Williams gave McDonnell's daughters some $25,000 to pay for catering at their weddings. There was the $6,500 Rolex watch that McDonnell's wife reportedly asked Williams for - to give to the governor - and a $15,000 shopping spree.

And this week, The Washington Post reported that a corporation controlled by McDonnell and his sister received $70,000 in loans from Williams to help bail out real estate investments, and that McDonnell's wife received a $50,000 loan.

McDonnell, in a radio interview, says he's done nothing wrong, that all the gifts he received were reported and that Jonnie Williams has received nothing in return for his generosity to the McDonnell family.

MCDONNELL: This particular donor and company, Mr. Williams and Star Scientific, have received no benefits, no state monies, no board appointments, no economic development grants, nothing from the Commonwealth of Virginia while I've been governor.

NAYLOR: And in fact, Virginia law requires only that gifts exceeding $50 in value be reported and does not cover gifts to family members. Still, a federal grand jury is expected to meet this month and state authorities are also said to be looking into the governor's records. McDonnell's attorney did not respond to a request for a comment.

The head of the National Conference of State Legislatures Center for Ethics in Government says lawmakers need to be cautious when it comes to accepting gifts. Peggy Kerns, a former state lawmaker in Colorado, says she and her colleagues used to laugh about being taken out to dinner and having your vote swayed by that - something, she says, that does not happen.

PEGGY KERNS: But that said, there is the appearance of impropriety and that is an ethical standard. So what lawmakers do not want to happen, in any case, in any area, is for the public to sit back and just think people are on the take or taking a bribe.

NAYLOR: Virginia political analyst Robert Holsworth says the damage has already been done to McDonnell.

ROBERT HOLSWORTH: I think the governor has been tremendously tarnished by this, primarily because so many people thought it was at first out of character from what they had known of Bob McDonnell over the years. But what happened over the summer that I think has been very damaging is that there is almost no public figure in Virginia right now other than those paid to defend the governor doing so.

NAYLOR: In Virginia, governors are prohibited from running for re-election, so McDonnell won't be facing voters again in the near term. But the investigation is creating problems for the man who hopes to succeed McDonnell, state attorney general and fellow Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

In another twist to the saga, the former chef of the executive mansion in Richmond is set to go on trial this fall, charged with diverting materials from the kitchen for his own use. The chef has said McDonnell's family did much the same thing. Holsworth says none of this helps Cuccinelli.

HOLSWORTH: For Ken Cuccinelli, I think the last thing he would like is to have the governor and his activities on trial three weeks before he's trying to win election as his successor.

NAYLOR: And Cuccinelli has also received gifts from Williams, including a $1,500 catered Thanksgiving dinner and use of Williams' vacation house.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.