Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell speaks at the Bloomberg Link Economic… (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg )
A Richmond prosecutor is investigating whether Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell violated state gift and disclosure laws — a probe that was initiated by state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II.
Cuccinelli (R) confirmed Wednesday that he asked Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring to conduct a review of McDonnell’s annual economic disclosure forms last November.
Cuccinelli’s office had previously declined to confirm such a probe, but he acknowledged it after Herring released information about the review in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
The state probe is separate from an inquiry by the FBI into whether McDonnell (R) might have violated federal law by promoting a dietary supplement manufacturer in exchange for gifts from its chief executive.
McDonnell and his political campaigns accepted more than $120,000 in donations and disclosed gifts from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. as McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, worked to boost the company’s business.
Attorneys in Cuccinelli’s office were informed in March 2012 by the former chef at the executive mansion that Williams had paid the $15,000 catering bill at the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter, according to court documents.
McDonnell did not disclose the gift. Virginia law requires elected officials to annually disclose all gifts worth more than $50, but the governor has said that the catering gift did not need to be disclosed because it was given not to him but to his daughter. The law does not require that gifts to immediate family members be disclosed. However, McDonnell signed the contract for the catering, assuming financial responsibility for the bill.
Virginia law offers minimal penalties for failing to meet disclosure requirements. It is a misdemeanor, for instance, to knowingly omit information from the forms filed each January. It is also a misdemeanor to exchange official government acts for gifts or money.
And while it is illegal to accept gifts so frequently as to create the impression of using a public office for private gain, the law specifically says violators of the statute are not subject to any criminal penalty.
Knowingly violating the disclosure statutes, however, is considered “malfeasance in office,” and a judge or jury can order an official found guilty to forfeit his office.
Federal corruption statutes — the subject of preliminary FBI interviews — involve potentially far more serious consequences.
In a statement, Cuccinelli said he directed Herring to conduct the probe after “information came to my attention that triggered my requirement to look into the matter.”
A spokesman for McDonnell said the governor is cooperating with the state investigation, which was first reported Wednesday by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“We are aware of the review and look forward to working with them as this process moves forward,” spokesman Tucker Martin said.
Virginia law gives the state attorney general jurisdiction to review whether state officials have complied with laws requiring disclosure of gifts and other financial information.
According to the law, Cuccinelli is required to designate a commonwealth’s attorney to pursue prosecution of an elected official “if he determines that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that any officer or employee serving at the state level of government has knowingly violated” disclosure laws.
In the statement, Cuccinelli said his referral to Herring is “not a conclusion that any violation occurred.” That determination, he said, will be made by Herring.
The investigation presents a significant complication in the relationship between the state’s governor and Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee to succeed him. McDonnell has endorsed Cuccinelli and attended a fundraiser for him earlier this month.
But it could also undermine claims by the chef and Cuccinelli’s Democratic opponent that Cuccinelli ignored allegations against McDonnell and Williams.
Cuccinelli also is entangled with Williams and his company.
The attorney general has accepted $18,000 in gifts from Williams, including stays at the executive’s lake house and flights on his private plane. Cuccinelli acknowledged last month that he had failed to initially disclose some of the gifts he received from Williams. He said he was amending his disclosure forms to reflect the gifts, including a catered Thanksgiving dinner and a stay at Williams’s lake house last summer.
He also said in April that while the omissions had not been made knowingly, he had asked Herring to conduct a review of his own disclosure forms.
Cuccinelli “did this on his own out of his desire for full transparency, so that some other official would be in a position to provide an independent review, because under current law, the attorney general is the only official who can review the attorney general’s statements of economic interest,” spokesman Brian Gottstein said Wednesday.