By Peter Hamby
RICHMOND, Virginia (CNN) — This southern city is a tranquil place in the summertime.
The steamy downtown streets and grand boulevards that radiate outward from the old Confederate capital are less choked as families seek shelter from the heat and clear out of town for jaunts to the beach or the river.
Children are off to summer camp or at the pool. Attention has turned to barbecues, outdoor concerts and the hotly anticipated arrival of the Washington Redskins’ training camp.
Even in election years, politics in Virginia is usually an autumn enterprise.
Until this year.
Even with the legislature out of session, Richmond has been consumed this summer by a slowly unfolding drama starring the once-invincible governor, Bob McDonnell, and a charismatic donor who provided the Republican and his family with almost $150,000 in previously undisclosed gifts, including a Rolex watch, a Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree, and a high-dollar payment to a company owned by the governor.
State and federal investigators are now looking into McDonnell’s relationship with Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a troubled nutritional supplement company called Star Scientific who was recently dubbed “Uncle Jonnie” by longtime Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro for his apparent willingness to shower the McDonnell clan with fancy gifts.
The inquiries into McDonnell and Star Scientific have also threatened to ensnare this year’s Republican nominee for governor, Ken Cuccinelli, who has his own ties to Williams but has recently sought to distance himself from both the donor and the embattled governor.
The details of the investigation, revealed by leak after devastating leak in the pages of The Washington Post and other newspapers, have stunned both Republicans and Democrats, who are having trouble squaring the well-mannered politician they know with the careless and tacky figure portrayed in news reports.
“You can disagree with the person on policy, and the disagreements can be passionate or even vehement, but you just didn’t expect this from this governor,” said state Sen. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Richmond. “He has always come across in dealing with him, on a political level and personal level, as someone who is squeaky clean. Regrettably, it’s appearing that that’s not the case.”
McDonnell has been at the center of some hot-button partisan fights — notably a 2012 legislative battle over an invasive abortion procedure — but the biggest personal knock on McDonnell before this summer’s scandal was the compulsive attention he paid to his diligently parted hair.
Since his election in 2009, Republicans have labeled McDonnell a star. His fundraising acumen, message discipline and understated charm helped lift him to the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association in 2011, a post other governors have used as a springboard to a presidential campaign.
McDonnell’s tightly knit team of advisers exercised great power over the machinery of Virginia Republican politics, appeasing the right wing of the party while also courting the business community that has long held sway in Richmond.
The governor and his aides, many of whom were caught off guard by the Star Scientific imbroglio, also proved skillful at courting members of the national media.
Impressive resume eclipsed by scandal
Political watchers assumed in 2012 that McDonnell was considered for the position of GOP presidential Mitt Romney’s running mate even though McDonnell was never vetted for the job, a person familiar with the vice presidential search process told CNN.
Still, some Republicans figured McDonnell would at least take a look at running for president in 2016. Others pegged him for a future cabinet official, perhaps attorney general, in a Republican administration. Now, facing the appearance of impropriety, ethical wrongdoing and, according to The Post, a federal grand jury, those hopes appeared dashed.
But more troubling to McDonnell loyalists is that his impressive gubernatorial resume — the crowning achievement of a long political career — has been eclipsed by scandal.
The governor marshaled a landmark bipartisan transportation deal through the legislature earlier this year, even though it included tax hikes that rankled conservatives in his own party. Virginia ended the most recent fiscal year with a $262 million budget surplus, ensuring pay raises for state employees for the first time since 2007. The state unemployment rate has dropped to 5.3%.
At one point in 2011, McDonnell’s approval rating was a sky-high 70%. Those numbers later came back to earth, but he has mostly hovered above a 50% approval rating throughout his tenure in Richmond.
Today, with the Star Scientific saga a regular feature on Virginia news broadcasts thanks to the drip-drip nature of story, more Virginians disapprove of his performance than approve.
McDonnell and allies have cautiously defended the lack of disclosure as consistent with Virginia law, which does not require elected officials to report gifts provided to family members like McDonnell’s wife and daughter.
Elected officials in Virginia are allowed to accept gifts over $50, as long as they are publicly disclosed. McDonnell has reported other gifts from Williams, including a stay at a lake house and private plane travel. Williams has also given generously to McDonnell’s political organization.
“The rules that I’m following have been rules that have been in place for decades,” McDonnell told a radio interviewer last week. “These have been the disclosure rules of Virginia. I’m following those.”
There is no evidence that the governor granted special favors to Williams or his company in exchange for his financial largesse, a point hammered home by McDonnell loyalists.
“Nothing that is publicly available indicates that he has broken any laws and the key point is Williams has gotten nothing, not one thing, from the administration,” said one person close to the governor who did not want to be identified talking about a legal investigation. “The governor may have misreported some gifts, but it seems clear he didn’t break any laws.”
A man under siege
At the same time, McDonnell is behaving like a man under siege. He has hired a veteran communications strategist, Rich Galen, to help manage the crisis, and on Tuesday he hired a former U.S. attorney, John Brownlee, onto his private legal team.
The moves suggest McDonnell is aware of the seriousness of the investigation and is bracing for a fight. The person close to the governor said the swirling controversy has “been very hard on him personally.”
McDonnell’s advisers insist he has no plans to resign before his term expires next January — although that calculus could change if he is indicted, a what-if scenario that has the Richmond political class buzzing.
But even if federal authorities decline to pursue charges against McDonnell, he will leave office a greatly diminished politician.
“The Republican now faces the real possibility of leaving Richmond next January as a Richard Nixon-like figure: embattled stonewaller disconnected from events; branded by enemies as shady, dismissed by sympathizers as naïve,” Schapiro, the bow-tie wearing oracle of the Times-Dispatch, wrote in a June column.
“These are images that will overshadow the one profile McDonnell refined over two decades in public life: hard-working, earnest, a guy of the people rather than above them, a disciplined, self-described problem-solver.”
McDonnell’s problems burst into pubic view in March, when The Post reported that Williams picked up the expensive catering tab for the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter, a $15,000 check that McDonnell aides said he did not report because it was a “gift” to the newly wedded couple and not the governor.
That piece of information appeared to come from Todd Schneider, the former chef of the Virginia Executive Mansion who catered the wedding but is now facing felony charges for embezzling state money. In court filings, Schneider’s attorneys said that the chef alerted investigators about gifts from Williams to the McDonnell family.
The initial Post story prompted other disclosures about the close relationship between Williams and the McDonnell family, including that Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell flew to Florida to promote one of Williams’ supplements at a conference, and that McDonnell’s political action committee hosted an lunch promoting the supplement at the governor’s mansion.
Williams also reportedly picked up Maureen McDonnell’s tab for a $15,000 shopping binge at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and bought the governor a $6,500 Rolex watch at her urging. None of those lavish purchases were reported by McDonnell.
Some Richmond insiders initially downplayed the revelations as “Maureen being Maureen,” as one state House Republican put it, acknowledging the demanding reputation of McDonnell’s wife.
But that sentiment changed last week after The Post revealed the Rolex gift and uncovered a $70,000 payment from Williams to a company owned by McDonnell and his sister. According to the paper, McDonnell considered the payment a loan. Corporate loans are exempt from state disclosure laws.
‘A real sea change’
“Between the watch and the loan situation, that kind of turned everybody’s opinion around here to, well, has he been involved in this from the beginning?” said one Republican in the Capitol who is close to the administration, but would only speak on the condition of anonymity. “Was he part of a concerted effort to deceive? It’s been a real sea change since those stories.”
“He has always been honest and ethical and gone out of his way to make sure that everyone fills their positions with the highest ethics, and hold ourselves to a higher standard,” the Republican said. “The prevailing sentiment around here is, that’s not the guy we know.”
Republicans here worry that the McDonnell scandal will tarnish their standard-bearer in this year’s governor’s race: Cuccinelli, the state Attorney General who was hoping to use ethics as a wedge issue against his opponent, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe.
Cuccinelli has also been on the receiving end of Williams’ generosity, having collected more than $18,000 in gifts from the executive and staying at his vacation house on Smith Mountain Lake.
Like McDonnell, Cuccinelli failed to disclose some of these gifts and trips, though they totaled far less than what McDonnell and his family received from Williams. But Cuccinelli amended his statement of economic interest in April to include the gifts. His campaign called his omissions “inadvertent.”
The attorney general also purchased stock in Star Scientific, but the campaign said Cuccinelli never discussed specific stock purchases with Williams. He sold off all of his holdings in Star in April “upon the counsel of his financial adviser,” the campaign said.
Cuccinelli, though, has taken steps to separate himself from the governor, calling for more stringent ethics laws. He also initiated a state investigation into McDonnell’s financial disclosures in late 2012.
Last week, the Republican candidate was asked about the McDonnell saga while on the campaign trail.
“What we’ve all been seeing has been very painful for Virginia, and it’s been completely inconsistent with Virginia’s very reserved traditions,” Cuccinelli said.
™ & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved