The ethics scandal surrounding Virginia governor Bob McDonnell has finally settled on the governor himself, in the form of a $6,000 engraved Rolex purchased for him by a campaign donor. Even under Virginia's notoriously lax ethics rules, McDonnell's failure to report the gift is a problem — and may be a serious threat to his political career.
It is by no means, however, the most expensive gift his family has received from the donor, a businessman named Jonnie Williams. Williams, who owns a nutritional supplement company called Star Scientific, also ponied up for the catering and flowers at McDonnell's daughter's wedding, and, as reported by the Washington Post, McDonnell's wife's inaugural wardrobe.
What makes the watch different is the rule at stake: a gift valued at over $50 to an elected official must be reported. The watch wasn't. From the Post:
Williams’s gift came in August 2011 — about two weeks after he met with a top state health official to pitch the benefits of his company’s health products at a meeting arranged by first lady Maureen McDonnell, according to people who know of the meeting.
Williams bought the watch at the urging of Maureen McDonnell, who admired Williams’s own Rolex and suggested that he buy her a similar one she could give to her husband, the people said. Her proposal occurred moments before the meeting she had arranged with the state official, according to one person familiar with the request.
A few weeks later, Star Scientific was allowed to use the governor's mansion for an event promoting a new supplement product called Anatabloc. Among Anatabloc's offerings for inflammation reduction is a skin care line.
What makes the watch different than the other gifts — a stay at Williams' vacation home, a catered Thanksgiving dinner — is that McDonnell himself is implicated. Even though he signed the catering invoice for his daughter's wedding, the governor has continued to represent it as a gift to her, not him. So all of those other gifts McDonnell was attempting to explain away.
It's in part thanks to Virginia's notoriously lax ethics rules. A study conducted last year by the Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International gave Virginia an F in its "Corruption Risk Report Card," putting the state at 47th place out of the 50 states. The state got F grades in lobbying disclosure, political financing, executive accountability, and six other categories. In particular, the state got a flat zero percent on a question reading, "In practice, the regulations governing gifts and hospitality offered to state legislators are effective."
There's one loophole to that 50-dollar-limit rule: if the gift comes from family or "personal friends." McDonnell's spokesperson insists that Williams is the latter, according to the Post, with a close relationship stretching back five years. Right before McDonnell started running for governor.