VIDEO: Gov. McDonnell explains why he did not disclose donor’s $15,000 wedding gift

Posted at 6:59 AM, Apr 10, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said he did not publicly disclose a $15,000 gift a donor made for his daughter's wedding because the money went to his daughter and not to him. But according to a report in the Washington Postcatering receipts for the wedding indicate the governor signed for and put $8,000 down as a deposit for reception.

"Mr. [Jonnie] Williams gave my daughter a wedding present. As you know under the reporting laws, the gifts that come to me, I report, and I've been doing this for 22 years. Gifts that come to me I regularly, diligently report those. But gifts that come to other family members under the current law, are not reportable," Governor McDonnell said when asked about the 2011 wedding gift after an event on Monday.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported the governor's signature and handwritten notes were on the catering contract that Williams' gift covered. The Post also reported, due to an overpayment, a $3,500 refund check from the caterer was paid to First Lady Maureen McDonnell and not the newlyweds.

In a statement from the governor's office, spokesman Jeff Caldwell explained the why the refund money went to the governor and his wife and not his daughter.

"Reception and catering arrangements were made well in advance of the June 2011 wedding," Caldwell wrote in an email. "Catering correspondence and invoices were sent to the governor’s daughter, Cailin, beginning in late 2010. At her request, the governor assisted his daughter, Cailin, with reviewing the contract for catering in late 2010. He signed the contract and made two initial installment payments for her to secure the catering, unbeknownst to his daughter until after the fact. The governor’s daughter and future son-in-law insisted on paying for the costs of the wedding, as the governor and first lady had done for their own wedding.

"Shortly before the wedding, Mr. Williams made a generous gift to Cailin to cover much of the anticipated costs of the reception’s catering component. The governor’s daughter and son-in-law themselves paid for the substantial non-catering costs related to the wedding (e.g. rehearsal dinner, flowers, DJ, honeymoon, etc.—a total greater than Mr. Williams’ gift.) After final reception expenses were tallied, the caterer issued Mrs. McDonnell a refund covering a portion of the original deposit made by the governor. All of Mr. Williams’ gift was applied to catering and was not part of Mrs. McDonnell’s refund."

Jonnie Williams, the donor who gave Cailin McDonnell the $15,000 wedding gift, is the Chief Executive Officer of Henrico-based Star Scientific. The company, which used to make to make smokeless tobacco products, now sells dietary supplements, according to the company's website.

The days before the wedding, First Lady Maureen McDonnell flew to Florida to promote Star Scientific products, the Post reported. After the wedding, the governor and his wife hosted an event at the Governor's Mansion to help market the company's products.

During Monday's interview, the governor addressed his office's support for Williams' business.

"It's a Virginia publicly traded company. I've done a lot of things with publicly traded companies in Virginia," the governor said. "I can say that the core mission of our administration has been promoting jobs, economic development, creating new opportunities - and we do that with a lot of Virginia companies. I think I've done probably 275 events for Virginia businesses around the state, around the country, around the world."

The issue of whether Virginia politicians should be required to disclose gifts given to family members could be up for debate at the State Capitol.

Democratic State Senator Donald McEachin says the incident is shedding light on a grey area when it comes to Virginia’s contribution laws, especially when it pertains to gifts given to family members.

McEachin plans to introduce legislation during next year’s General Assembly session to address the “family loophole.”

“This is going to be a hard subject to get our arms around,” McEachin argues. “My daughter just got a scholarship to go to Parsons University, is that a gift that should be reported?”

CBS 6 also reached out to five former Virginia governors on Wednesday to get their reaction to the controversy. As of Wednesday evening, Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine declined to comment.

Governor Jim Gilmore says while in office, he never accepted cash gifts.  He also says, to his knowledge, that his administration reported all gift contributions, including those made to his wife.

Conservative blogger Norman Leahy says many Republicans believe the controversy is more about politics than ethics.

“This is really more about 2014 than it is about the here and now or what happened in 2011,” says Leahy.

"My sense is that the governor's technical distinction between a gift made directly to him and a gift that ultimately went to his family member probably puts him on relatively firm legal ground," CBS 6 political analyst Dr. Bob Holsworth said. "The problem that he has here is that does it harm him and tarnish him politically at all."

Governor McDonnell left Virginia today for a 16-day "job creation and economic development marketing mission." This trip will take the governor and several of his cabinet secretaries to Los Angeles, San Francisco, China and Japan. The governor is scheduled to return to Virginia on April 26.