POLITICS: PennAve

Ken Cuccinelli returns gifts from embattled Virginia businessman

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Virginia,Steve Contorno,Terry McAuliffe,Ken Cuccinelli,Campaigns,PennAve,Ethics,2013 Virginia Governor Race

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli recently donated $18,000 to charity, his campaign announced Tuesday, in hopes of putting to rest lingering questions surrounding his relationship with an embattled businessman at the center of a state scandal.

The value of the donation equaled the $18,000 worth of gifts given to Cuccinelli, the Virginia attorney general, by Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. The politically connected businessman is the subject of an FBI investigation into Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell, who were also lavished with gifts from Williams while helping to promote a tobacco-based supplement critical to the future of Star Scientific.

In a video released by his campaign, Cuccinelli said he wanted to return the gifts earlier but his family had trouble scraping the money together. The Republican, who is a father of seven, is paid $150,000 a year for his taxpayer-funded job.

"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," Cuccinelli said. "For those who've been disappointed in this situation or how I've handled it, I apologize. It's been a humbling set of lessons for me."

Williams is in a legal dispute with the state over unpaid taxes and is the subject of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation for misleading investors. Cuccinelli owned stock in Star Scientific, his only major holding, but was forced to sell it earlier this year at a loss as scrutiny over his personal and professional relationship with Williams dragged on.

Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe immediately criticized Cuccinelli for waiting so long to turn over the gifts, which included flights, a $1,500 Thanksgiving dinner and $6,700 in nutritional supplements from Star Scientific. Cuccinelli failed to disclose some of the gifts on annual financial disclosure forms for several years.

The McDonnells returned $125,000 in loans and thousands more worth of gifts earlier this summer as the federal probe into Virginia's first family intensified.

"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 McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. "Cuccinelli’s actions today are a reminder that he failed to seriously pursue Star Scientific for the $1.7 million they owed in back taxes at the same time that he was taking lavish gifts, luxury vacations and extravagant meals from the company’s CEO."

Most polls show McAuliffe with a single-digit lead over Cuccinelli with less than two months until the November election. In his campaign message Tuesday, Cuccinelli said he plans to focus his campaign on how he has helped Virginians through a career in public service to push back against the attacks on his character and his handling of the Star Scientific scandal.

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