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A Governor’s Tumble

In the spirit of the Power List, recounting Bob McDonnell's fall from grace.


  • Scott Elmquist

Talk about the fall of the mighty. Six months ago, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell swooned with popularity ratings of more than 60 percent. He was capping his term with the state's first transportation reform package since 1987. Because of him, thousands of convicted felons were restored to full rights after serving their prison terms. The photogenic guy with the perfect hair seemed a possible presidential contender for 2016.

His decline has been spectacular and historic. In March, The Washington Post revealed that he and his family had accepted gifts from a little-known entrepreneur named Jonnie Williams Sr. He's the chief executive of Star Scientific, a failing dietary supplement manufacturer based in Henrico County. A steady stream of revelations about Williams' gifts and loans to the McDonnells has painted a picture of a crass, venal and greedy first family.

Among those revelations: First lady Maureen McDonnell asked Williams for -- and received -- a $6,500 Rolex watch to give to the governor. Williams also paid for her $15,000 luxury shopping spree in New York and the governor borrowed a $190,000 Ferrari to drive at an expenses-paid vacation in one of William's homes.

As it turns out, the McDonnells were in far more serious personal financial trouble than anyone knew. While attorney general from 2006 to 2009, McDonnell bought three vacation properties as the real estate market began to go bust. Williams bailed him out with a $70,000 loan while lending $50,000 to Maureen.

The governor is the target of probes by federal and state prosecutors. Meanwhile, the felony embezzlement case against mansion former executive chef Todd Schneider -- the case that sparked the scrutiny of the Williams-McDonnell relationship -- has provoked more embarrassment. Testimony has the McDonnell children raiding the Executive Mansion and aides complaining about their harsh treatment by the first lady.

After stonewalling for four months, McDonnell finally announced that he'd repaid the money he borrowed from Williams and that he and his family were giving back the gifts. He apologized publicly for embarrassing the state -- while reiterating that he broke no laws. He has yet to give a complete accounting for what happened.

Today, only 31 percent of Virginians polled consider the governor ethical. Once-staunch allies are running for the exits. Gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, a fellow Republican and sly competitor, has tried to upstage McDonnell by asking for him to call a special legislative session to debate ethics reforms just in time for the election. McDonnell isn't biting.

McDonnell could well be indicted, but Virginia's disclosure and gift laws are so lax it might be difficult to come up with a case. Still, there are calls to close loopholes such as the one that allowed the gifts to the governor's family to go unreported.

When all is said and done, Bob McDonnell's most important legacy could be the creation of a state ethics commission.

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