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As Va. Governor Wraps Up Term, Allegations of Undisclosed Gifts Emerge

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is the focus of mounting scrutiny over revelations of large, undisclosed gifts given to him and his family by businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. Judy Woodruff talks to Virginian Pilot reporter Julian Walker for more on the brewing controversy.

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    There was mounting scrutiny today of Virginia's governor, after the latest in a series of revelations about undisclosed gifts from a wealthy businessman.


    Good afternoon.


    Hailing from a battleground state, Bob McDonnell was a prominent figure in the 2012 election season. The Republican governor appeared in Virginia alongside presidential nominee Mitt Romney on several occasions, and was touted as a possible national figure of the future.

    Now, as McDonnell wraps up his final year in office, he's confronted with mounting questions about gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr., chief executive of Star Scientific, Inc., a dietary supplement manufacturer. The latest disclosure in The Washington Post, says Williams gave $145,000 in cash and gifts to the McDonnell family and a corporation owned by the governor in 2011 and 2012.

    According to the account, "Payments to the corporation offer the first public example of money provided by Williams that would directly benefit the governor and not just his family."

    The trail of allegations began with a chef at the governor's mansion who was charged with taking food for his own business last year. Since then, he's been talking to federal officials about McDonnell's relationship with Williams. That, in turn, has triggered state and federal investigations.

    Well, for more on the brewing controversy, we are joined by Julian Walker. He is a staff writer for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

    Julian Walker, thank you for being with us.

    First of all, tell us more about Jonnie Williams. Who is he? What's his connection to the governor?

  • JULIAN WALKER, The Virginian-Pilot:

    Jonnie Williams is a businessman. He has — he's the head and chief executive of Star Scientific, which is a nutritional supplement maker. They used to be a tobacco company, but they phased out a lot of their tobacco business. And now they're making dietary supplements.

    He has been involved at a donor in Virginia politics for a number of years. He has given to Republicans over the years, including the former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who ran for governor in 2005 unsuccessfully. He's given significant funds to Governor McDonnell and, as you pointed out, also to members of his family, as has been disclosed in a number of press accounts here in recent months.


    But has he given these kinds of gifts for clothes for the governor's wife, a watch through the governor's wife for the governor, has he given those kinds of gifts previously to other politicians?


    Most of what we know so far are the gifts that he's given to — the non-monetary gifts that he's given to Governor McDonnell and his family. Much of the other giving that has occurred in the past, some of it has been in traditional campaign contributions. Some of it has come in the forms of other kinds of in-kind contributions.

    But much of the focus here recently is on the gifts that he has given to Gov. McDonnell and his family, as you mentioned, an expensive watch that was reportedly given to the governor's wife and then turned over to the governor, money to cover catering costs at the governor — at the wedding of the governor's daughter in 2011, this recent disclosure of loans to the governor to support some real estate, corporate holdings that he has.

    We reported about money that Jonnie Williams provided to fly the governor and his family to the Final Four for the NCAA basketball tournament in 2011, when a local college here in Virginia made a Cinderella run to the ultimate basketball tourney there.


    Is there an understanding, Julian Walker, of why the governor and his family have accepted these gifts? I mean, is there — are they in financial difficulty?


    Well, the governor has a large family. He has got five children. And the governor has never been a man of significant financial means.

    The — Virginia's system of disclosures is such that, while you are required to report your assets, your holdings, your liabilities, things of that sort, public officials, because of the way that they are required to disclose their financial holdings, there's not a great deal known about their assets. They report in a range of investments and liabilities and things of that sort.

    So I think it's fair to say that the governor is not a wealthy man. Whether they are in significant financial straits, I think, is somewhat difficult to say.


    So, what is the governor, what is the governor's office saying about all this?


    Well, they are insisting that they have done nothing wrong. They have been critical of some of the news reports. They have not called them inaccurate, but they have questioned the validity of them.

    And they have insisted throughout that the governor has at least held to the letter of the law as far as his disclosures are concerned, that everything he has done has met requirements under state law. Virginia law is pretty permissive when it comes to accepting gifts, and really there is not much of a limit, essentially unlimited gifts, so long as you provide an annual accounting of what you receive.


    So what about the discussion of the ethics of it? Even if it's not illegal, is there a conversation on the part of the governor or the governor's staff about that?


    Well, the governor has retained a prominent Washington, D.C., white-collar attorney who has represented a number of noteworthy and recognizable names in politics when they have had their own difficulties and their own public crises.

    So he is certainly taking this seriously. There is a — both a federal investigation and a state investigation. There's also the parallel embezzlement investigation into the former chef at the governor's mansion.

    There is, on top of that, another probe being conducted by the local prosecutor in Richmond into the governor's disclosure forms and whether or not he properly completed and reported all of the gifts that he received.

    So there are a number of layers to this. Meanwhile, you have folks in both parties, Republicans and Democrats here in Virginia, questioning the gifts that the governor has received and questioning whether this passes the smell test from an ethical perspective, but, again, ethics and legality are two different things.


    So, you're saying even members of the governor's own party, the Republican Party, are also raising questions about this?


    Some Republicans, yes.

    The only — only two Democrats so far have come out and directly called for the governor to resign, two Democrats who are in the Virginia General Assembly.

    No Republican has come out and said that he should resign, but a number of Republicans, both privately and publicly, are at least kind of furrowing their brows about this and acknowledging, sometimes in hushed tones, that this is problematic for the governor, at least from a public perspective.


    And, Julian Walker, is there a sense that more may come out or this is the end of it?


    Oh, I think there's much more still to be revealed.

    I think all of the folks who cover the Virginia capital are hearing probably on just about a daily basis, if not an hour-by-hour basis, the latest rumor du jour about this gift that has been unreported, this gift that has not been disclosed. So, there's a lot of rumors swirling around.

    And I think there probably is more to come. And, certainly, as we know, there is an active federal investigation. So it remains to be seen what cards the federal law enforcement officials are holding.


    Julian Walker with the Virginian-pilot newspaper, thank you very much.

    And the two candidates looking to succeed McDonnell as Virginia's governor will debate on July 20. I will be the moderator. And if you have a question for them to answer, you can leave it on our website. The NewsHour will live stream the event. You can find the details on our home page.