updated 8:20 p.m.
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were charged in federal court on Tuesday for allegedly taking tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts while in office from a supporter who sought help from the state government.
McDonnell held a press conference with his wife and one of his daughters by his side on Tuesday evening, insisting he was “falsely and wrongly accused.”
During his final State of the Commonwealth address earlier this month, McDonnell – who repaid the money and returned the gifts -- apologized for the “problems and pain I’ve caused this past year.” Some of the gifts allegedly included a $6,500 Rolex watch, $10,000 worth of Oscar de la Renta clothing and $15,000 for his daughter’s wedding expenses.
The indictment came just 10 days after McDonnell– once considered 2016 Republican presidential material – left office, making way for Democrat Terry McAuliffe. The former chairman of the Democratic National Committee narrowly beat Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican, who was also hurt by the gift-giving scandal. Cuccinelli, who was McDonnell's attorney general, apologized last fall for taking gifts from the same businessman.
McDonnell is the latest GOPer to find himself embroiled in scandal. Like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, McDonnell easily sailed to victory in 2009; both were lauded as problem solvers willing to put politics aside. Christie, of course, is now waist-deep in allegations that his office abused its power, with federal and state investigators looking into whether his top aides caused traffic jams—seemingly for political retribution. McDonnell and Christie, both of whom were on Mitt Romney’s vice presidential short list in 2012, now seem to have a rough road ahead of them. Tuesday evening, Cuccinelli said on CNN that Christie should resign as head of the Republican Governors Association. "It makes sense for him to step aside," Cuccinelli said.
For months, federal and state authorities have been looking into McDonnell’s acceptance of gifts and loans for himself and his family from Jonnie Williams, a former chief executive of Star Scientific Inc., a dietary supplement company,
According to the 14-count indictment, the couple received the gifts and loans in exchange for McDonnell helping on an “as-needed basis to legitimize, promote and obtain research studies for Star’s products.” That included arranging meetings with state government officials and hosting events at the Governor’s Mansion, with the goal of persuading university researchers to initiate studies of Star’s products.
At his press conference the former governor said that while he regrets accepting the gifts and takes full responsibility, he did nothing illegal for “what I believed was his personal generosity and friendship” with Williams. The GOPer added: “I never promised – and Mr. Williams and his company never received – any government benefit of any kind from me or my administration. We did not violate the law, and I will use every available resource and advocate I have for as long as it takes to fight these false allegations and to prevail against this unjust overreach of the federal government.”
He added that law officials were acting on a “misguided” legal theory that facilitating an introduction for a meeting or appearing at a reception involving a political donor was somehow a “serious federal crime.” If that was the case, McDonnell argued, “nearly any elected official from the president on down would have be to be charged."
McAuliffe has promised to sign an executive order enacting a limit on gifts to himself and members of his staff.
The Democrat said in a statement that he is “obviously troubled by the charges that federal prosecutors have made against Governor McDonnell and his wife Maureen and the message that this period in our history sends about how government in this Commonwealth is run.” McAuliffe said he hopes justice will be served and that he can help prevent “episodes like this from occurring ever again.”