RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II said he will give a Richmond-based charity more than $18,000 — the value of gifts he received from a Star Scientific executive whose much larger presents to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his family are the focus of two investigations.
Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor, has been under pressure from critics and supporters to pay back Star chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. since late July, when McDonnell (R) announced that he would return valuables and money that Williams had provided to him and his family.
“I made the decision to send the check because it’s the right thing to do, plain and simple,” Cuccinelli said in a two-minute video shot in his kitchen, a refrigerator adorned with a child’s artwork behind him. “This is something I would have liked to have done sooner, but like most Virginians, writing a check for more than $18,000 is not a simple matter for my family and me. It’s taken a while to get our funds together.
“For those who have been disappointed in this situation or how I’ve handled it, I apologize. It’s been a humbling set of lessons for me.”
Cuccinelli’s effort to distance himself from the controversial business executive suggested that the gifts scandal threatens not only McDonnell’s political future but also Cuccinelli’s bid to replace him. The announcement came after several public polls showed Cuccinelli trailing Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic opponent.
It was not the only step Cuccinelli has taken to distance himself from McDonnell, whose popularity with business leaders and social conservatives as recently as a year ago was thought likely to give Cuccinelli a major boost. In response to the unfolding scandal, the attorney general has urged the General Assembly to convene immediately in special session to tighten ethics law, and he has aired a television commercial in which he takes credit for launching the state’s investigation of McDonnell.
Shoring up support among conservatives is crucial for Cuccinelli, who counts the state’s most ardent GOP activists and tea party organizers among his most faithful fans. But perceptions that Cuccinelli has played down social issues to win votes among independent voters have alienated some conservatives — and the Star Scientific scandal has given them more reason to be skeptical, several said.
“The whole Star Scientific thing has been just one more question mark in the minds of the conservative base,” said Larry Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, who applauded Cuccinelli for donating the money. “He needs to come back to his conservative base, including the Tea Party. . . . If they stay home in droves, he will lose.”
Federal and state investigators are examining Williams’s relationship with the McDonnells, who promoted a dietary supplement made by Star Scientific around the time Williams was providing them with luxury items and with money that McDonnell has characterized as loans. McDonnell has said Williams received no state favors in exchange for his largess.
Cuccinelli is not under investigation — a Richmond prosecutor has looked into his gift disclosure forms and found no wrongdoing — but the attorney general’s ties to Williams have dogged his campaign.
In an interview Tuesday with NBC12, a Richmond TV station, Cuccinelli acknowledged for the first time that he had answered questions from federal investigators about Williams. But he said that the contact took place “months and months ago” and that he was never the subject of an investigation.
Cuccinelli initially failed to report about $4,500 in gifts from Williams as well as substantial stock holdings in Star Scientific. At the time, Cuccinelli’s office was opposing Star in a tax case and pursuing embezzlement charges against the former Executive Mansion chef, who first blew the whistle on McDonnell’s ties to Williams. Cuccinelli has said the reporting lapses were oversights.
Cuccinelli’s connections to Star could be particularly damaging because accepting vacations and a catered dinner from a wealthy businessman runs counter to his image as an economic populist concerned with the little guy. Those ties also complicate Cuccinelli’s attempts to paint McAuliffe as ethically troubled.
There was no immediate sign that the donation had extinguished Democrats’ interest in the issue. They released statements that criticized the timing of Cuccinelli’s donation.
“Cuccinelli’s pattern of ethical behavior is always the same: get caught in scandals, do nothing for months and then buckle to pressure for his own political reasons,” said Josh Schwerin, spokesman for McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman.