Republican attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is pressing a reluctant Gov. Bob McDonnell to convene Virginia's General Assembly into special session to consider revising the state's porous financial disclosure laws.
Cuccinelli's appeal Monday to the Republican governor he hopes to succeed comes after McDonnell last week voiced support for general, non-specific ethics law reforms but showed no appetite for summoning lawmakers back to Richmond to enact them before his term ends in January.
McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin said McDonnell was told of Cuccinelli's call for quick action on ethics reform but is working on his own package of reforms. "(H)e believes the proper time and place for the consideration of such changes would be during the next session of the General Assembly, which begins in January,'' Martin said in a statement.
Republican leadership in the Virginia House agreed.
"These are very complicated and serious issues that deserve our full and undivided attention," read a statement from Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Majority Leader M. Kirkland "Kirk" Cox (R-Colonial Heights), Caucus Chairman Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) and Majority Whip Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas). "Addressing them during a regular session will allow us to carefully consider each proposal, gather input and feedback, and move forward in a responsible manner."
Cuccinelli argued that's not soon enough.
"I believe Virginians want solutions right now, not sometime down the road," he responded.
He added, "I think we can achieve more in August, than we are likely to achieve in January."
Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling suggested a series of ethics reforms:
- Banning the receipt of gifts in excess of $250 in aggregate for a calendar year.
- Expanding gift reporting requirements and limitations to spouses and dependent family members.
- Requiring the disclosure of additional information regarding Board memberships, income, investments and loans.
- Prohibiting the use of campaign funds for personal expenditures.
- Prohibiting lawyer legislators from representing clients before state agencies.
- Prohibiting law firms who are assigned business by the Office of the Attorney General from making political contributions or giving other gifts to the Attorney General, any candidate for Attorney General or any member of the Attorney General’s staff.
- Creating a statewide Ethics Review Commission to review ethics related complaints against elected officials and issue advisory opinions on ethics related issues.
The governor, like Cuccinelli, accepted thousands of dollars' worth of gifts from Jonnie R. Williams, chief executive of Star Scientific Inc., a troubled Virginia-based manufacturer of nutritional supplements. The company had unsuccessfully lobbied senior state officials under McDonnell to include Anatabloc, its anti-inflammatory product that lacks Food and Drug Administration approval, in the health benefit plans of Virginia's government employees.
McDonnell never disclosed the gifts on the annual financial disclosure report Virginia requires public officials to file each January, noting that state law compels only that gifts directly to officeholders - not their families - be disclosed. Another provision exempts gifts from people considered personal friends from being itemized in the reports, and McDonnell has said Williams is a close family friend.
Cuccinelli took about $18,000 in gifts from Williams and Star Scientific, including a $3,000 summer vacation and a $1,500 catered Thanksgiving dinner at Williams' luxury lodge on Smith Mountain Lake in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills that went unreported for years. Cuccinelli disclosed the gifts in April when he amended four years' worth of economic-interest reports to include items that he said he had forgotten earlier.
Federal and state authorities have begun criminal investigations into McDonnell's ties to Williams and whether the governor improperly used the authority of his office to benefit Williams or his company. Williams and his company are cooperating with federal investigators, an individual with knowledge of the case confirmed for The Associated Press on Monday on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is still under way.
McDonnell, in the past two weeks, has apologized for his actions and announced that he repaid a personal loan of about $50,000 Williams made to first lady Maureen McDonnell and two loans totaling about $70,000 Williams made to a real estate holding company owned jointly by McDonnell and his sister. The loans, he said, were repaid with interest using only personal assets.
McDonnell announced last week that his daughters Cailin and Jeanine have repaid cash wedding gifts of $15,000 and $10,000, respectively, from Williams. He said he is returning all tangible gifts from Williams still in the family's possession, including a $6,500 Rolex watch engraved to the "71st Governor of Virginia.''
Cuccinelli, asked if he would return Williams' gifts or reimburse him for their value, said he would not because no money ever changed hands and because "There are some bells you can't unring.''
Democrats called Cuccinelli's ethics reform legislative session appeal cynical.
"Ken Cuccinelli asking for a special session on ethics is like Alex Rodriguez asking Major League Baseball to get steroids out of the game,'' said Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Brian Coy.
Statewide candidates and lawmakers in this election year have advocated tightening Virginia's ethics laws that have been ranked among America's weakest.
Democrats, including Cuccinelli's gubernatorial opponent Terry McAuliffe, support some sort of ban on gifts to state officials. McAuliffe wants a ban on all gifts exceeding $100.
Republicans generally back more nuanced approaches, including limits, broadening disclosure requirements and timelier reporting. Cuccinelli has advocated a 10-day deadline for reporting gifts greater than $500, a simplified reporting form and ending the loophole through which gifts to officeholders' families are exempt from disclosure.
Cuccinelli's call for a special session exposes another fissure between the state's two most powerful Republicans.
In February, an adverse Cuccinelli legal opinion about a bipartisan transportation reform bill McDonnell wanted and that had eluded prior governors for decades almost derailed the measure on the eve of its passage. In 2009, when Cuccinelli advised top officials of Virginia's public colleges and universities that they could not impose anti-discrimination protections for gay students and personnel, McDonnell fired off a letter countermanding Cuccinelli.