With FBI probe, Gov. Bob McDonnell loses squeaky clean image

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno,FBI

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's Boy Scout image suffered a major blow last week with the revelation that the FBI is investigating his family's relationship with a rich campaign contributor who lavished them with gifts.

The federal investigation is likely to take months, but the fallout is already threatening the future of a man once considered a rising star in the Republican Party, and perhaps even a presidential candidate in 2016.

"The man was squeaky clean," said Jeremy Mayer, a political science professor at George Mason University. "He was a personable, honest, good guy. He's now going to fall victim to the politics of personal destruction."

The relationship between Gov. Bob McDonnell and Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams
2009 -- McDonnell is elected governor; Star Scientific pays nearly $29,000 for his campaign travel.
2010 -- Star Scientific pays nearly $80,000 for McDonnell's political travel.
2011 -- Williams pays $2,268 for McDonnell to vacation at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia.
April 2011 -- The firm donates $22,371 to McDonnell's PAC, Opportunity Virginia.
June 2011 -- Williams pays a $15,000 catering bill for McDonnell's daughter's wedding. Three days before the wedding, first lady Maureen McDonnell flew to Florida to promote Star Scientific's tobacco supplement Anatabloc.
July 2011 -- The firm sues Virginia over $700,000 in unpaid taxes.
August 2011 -- Bob and Maureen McDonnell host event for Star Scientific at the executive mansion.
March 2012 -- Executive mansion chef Todd Schneider tells state and federal authorities of improper relationship between McDonnell and Williams, he alleges in court documents filed in 2013. Schneider turns himself in on four counts of felony embezzlement.
2012 -- Star Scientific spent $7,382 flying McDonnell to Massachusetts and back.
March 2013 -- The firm announces it's under federal investigation because of a stock transaction.
April 2013 -- McDonnell's former chef alleges in court papers that the first family, including members not living at the mansion, took food, beverages, alcohol and kitchenware for personal use. That same month the FBI opens an investigation into the relationship between McDonnell and Williams.
Sources: Virginia Public Access Project and the Secretary of the Commonwealth

At the center of the controversy is Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, who picked up a $15,000 catering bill for the wedding of the governor's daughter in 2011. That gift was never reported by McDonnell, who said he did not have to because Virginia disclosure laws exempt family members.

"[McDonnell] has his excuse. He may be technically right, but it looks awful," said a longtime Republican strategist in Virginia. "People who paid their daughters' weddings know what it costs and no one is standing around writing us $15,000 checks.

"Over the long run," the strategist said, "This does hurt his national ambitions. This is going to be a story that comes back and haunts him. I don't know what his other ambitions will be but this is something that will take some time to clean up."

McDonnell's camp is optimistic that the fallout from the investigation will blow over in time for the Republican to bounce back. Prior to these developments, McDonnell was enjoying a successful final year in office, passing a transportation funding overhaul that's expected to fix the state's woeful gridlock.

"In politics a week is a month, and a month is a decade. But results are forever. And the governor's results in office would make any candidate jealous," said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin. "The governor's results in office mean he'll have no shortage of opportunities moving forward. It'll simply come down to what he wants to do in the years ahead."

Williams attracted further attention when it was learned that he was also giving gifts to the man who wants to replace McDonnell, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who recently admitted he failed to report several of those gifts between 2009 and 2012.

The FBI is reportedly investigating whether the wedding gift and thousands of dollars in vacation and travel expenses that the McDonnells received from Williams resulted in any quid pro quo for Virginia-based Star Scientific. McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell did help promote a company product called "Anatabloc" days before the wedding, but it does not appear that the company received any economic development grants from the McDonnell administration.

Helping to batter McDonnell's reputation is Todd Schneider, his former executive mansion chef who is charged with embezzlement. In court documents, Schneider alleges the McDonnell family, including those not living in the mansion, used the taxpayer-funded residence as a personal pantry and said he alerted the state and FBI a year ago of a suspicious relationship between the McDonnells and Williams.

Even those clearly in McDonnell's camp are concerned what impact this will have on his future. Chesterfield County lawyer Jack Wilson, who sits on the GOP state central committee, said he's giving McDonnell the benefit of the doubt, calling his Republican friend "very ethical."

But he added: "How do you get your reputation back even after you've been thrown through the wringer and they find nothing?"

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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