Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell says firm in FBI probe got no special deals

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno,FBI

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell denied Tuesday that he ever gave special consideration to Henrico-based Star Scientific in the face of reports that the FBI is investigating the Republican's relationship with company CEO Jonnie Williams.

Speaking on WTOP's monthly "Ask the Governor" program, McDonnell would not directly address reports that the FBI was interviewing people who know the governor and first lady Maureen McDonnell about gifts the state's first family received from Williams, whose company is the subject of a federal investigation and a state legal dispute over unpaid taxes. The McDonnells helped promote a tobacco-based supplement from Star Scientific called "Anatabloc" about the same time Williams paid the $15,000 catering bill for the wedding of the first couple's daughter.

But McDonnell sought to assure the public that he has complied with Virginia law and any work he did for Star Scientific is "part and parcel of my job as governor to promote Virginia business." Williams has also paid for McDonnell to vacation at his Virginia lake house and has donated $100,000 to McDonnell's campaign.

"Mr. Williams and his wife, Celeste, have been family friends for four or five years," McDonnell said. "Nothing has been done in regards with my relationship to him to give any special benefits to him or his company."

The Washington Post first reported late Monday that the FBI is looking for any quid pro quo deals between the McDonnells and Williams. In court records, former Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider, who faces embezzlement charges, said he provided the FBI with evidence of wrongdoing by McDonnell, including information about the wedding that Williams helped pay for.

McDonnell didn't report Williams' wedding gift on his financial disclosure forms, saying gifts given to family members don't have to be disclosed.

A spokeswoman for the FBI said the bureau does not "confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation" and it will not be commenting further.

Star Scientific never received state economic-development funding under McDonnell's administration, according to 10 years of documents provided by the governor's office. The company did receive assistance from former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner.

McDonnell said on WTOP that his transgressions, as well as Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's repeated failures to report gifts from Williams and others on disclosure filings, have opened the door to a possible tightening of Virginia's lax ethics laws. Cuccinelli is vying to replace McDonnell as governor.

"It's a very prudent discussion. We're looking at that now in my office, what should be some changes," McDonnell said. "I am strongly behind improving transparency."

Amid the fallout, Cuccinelli's fall opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, proposed creating a bipartisan ethics commission to investigate potential malfeasance by elected officials.

"Virginians deserve better than to have their leaders just say 'Trust me,' while having no real accountability," said McAuliffe.

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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