A Richmond prosecutor has cleared Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli of criminal wrongdoing for failing to initially disclose thousands of dollars in personal gifts he had received years earlier from a Virginia businessman and his company, including a vacation and a catered Thanksgiving dinner.
Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Herring said Thursday there is no evidence that Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor, violated any criminal laws with his belated disclosures on his required state economic interest statements. The gifts included those from troubled nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific Inc. or its chief executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., whose relationship with Virginia's governor is the subject of a federal-state investigation that has shaken the state capital.
Cuccinelli also held 8,660 of shares of stock in the company, which he sold over the past two years, even as the attorney general's office was responsible for defending the state Department of Taxation in a lawsuit the company filed over a $700,000 tax dispute. At the time, it represented Cuccinelli's sole stock investment.
"Our investigation finds no evidence that the Attorney General in any way promoted, supported or assisted Star Scientific while he had a financial interest in the company,'' Herring, a Democrat, wrote in the conclusion of his eight-page report.
"Although one cannot help but question whether repeated omissions of gifts from Williams are a coincidence or a pattern reflecting intent to conceal, the disclosure of several other gifts and benefits from Williams in his original statements suggests that the attorney general was not attempting to conceal the relationship,'' the report added.
Cuccinelli asked Herring to examine whether he'd committed a crime.
"This review vindicates what I have said all along,'' Cuccinelli said in a statement issued by his spokesman, Brian J. Gottstein. "There was no legal requirement to refer my own filings to a commonwealth's attorney to review, but I did it because I wanted to be completely transparent with the public.''
Cuccinelli omitted more than $13,000 worth of gifts including private jet flights and free vacation lodgings from his required state disclosure forms for a period of four years. In late April, he amended his filings from 2009 through 2012, saying he simply overlooked the gifts earlier.
Among the gifts that Cuccinelli said slipped his mind: a $3,000 summer family vacation last year and a catered $1,500 Thanksgiving dinner in 2010 at Williams' waterside mansion at the Blue Ridge Mountains foothills resort community of Smith Mountain Lake.
State and federal investigators are examining the link between Williams, and his company, and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose family accepted thousands of dollars in unreported gifts from Williams, including a $15,000 check to his daughter Cailin for her 2011 wedding. McDonnell has defended not reporting the gifts on his statements of economic interest because state law requires only that gifts directly to state officeholders -- not their family members -- be disclosed.
Other honoraria added to Cuccinelli's amended forms included a chartered flight for him and his parents to a Virginia Mining Association ceremony at the expense of coal giant Alpha Natural Resources and transportation valued at $795 for a southwestern Virginia rally last year paid by the Federation of American Coal Energy and Security, or FACES of Coal.
Herring's report removes one impediment from Cuccinelli's campaign against Democrat Terry R. McAuliffe in the nation's only competitive gubernatorial contest this year.
The Richmond prosecutor now shifts his focus to a review of gifts to the McDonnells, and whether the governor's decision not to disclose them violates Virginia's conflict-of-interest law for public officials, which is consistently ranked by public interest organizations as among the nation's weakest.
Even if investigators determine that McDonnell deliberately withheld information that should have been made public, an infraction of the economic disclosure law is only a misdemeanor. Herring said that if he finds evidence McDonnell broke the law, he would present it to a grand jury, even if it's not a felony.
Addressing reporters Thursday afternoon, Herring said Cuccinelli appeared to have no strategy to conceal his ties to Williams.
"As I see this whole notion of forgetfulness, I think I've come to frame it as 'Is the lack of memory strategic or is it genuine and sincere?' I don't think the law allows for strategic lapses of memory. If it did, then I could forget disclosures that I did not want to reveal when it was convenient for me to forget,'' Herring said.
Democrats, who have been hammering Cuccinelli on the matter with the election less than four months away, were less forgiving.
Cuccinelli "avoided prosecution for disguising his conflict of interest with Star Scientific and Jonnie Williams because of Virginia's extraordinarily weak ethics laws,'' said Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Brian Coy.
In his report, Herring noted that the scope of his inquiry was limited.
"We did not broadly investigate the attorney general or his office,'' Herring wrote. "This report is in no way intended to offer an explanation for the behavior of the attorney general or any member of his staff.''
Herring also stated clearly that he's not necessarily done watching Cuccinelli.
The prosecutor wrote, "(A)t the risk of stating the obvious, we will continue to review information discovered by the (Virginia State Police) or other appropriate investigative agency.''