Analyst: McDonnell in 'Crisis Mode,' Must Act Quickly

By: Chris Stover Email
By: Chris Stover Email

July 10, 2013

Gov. Bob McDonnell opened up about accusations of corruption from a chef in the governor's mansion just days before canceling a series of public events.

"The governor and his team recognize that he's in crisis mode. He's in freefall," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "And if he doesn't do something quickly to recover, it's not going to just sink him, it will sink his party and probably his legacy."

Sabato says in his roughly five decades covering politics in the commonwealth, "I've never seen a governor in this kind of trouble. Ever."

McDonnell spoke to Richmond television station WTVR about the allegations of corruption and his relationship with Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Williams has been reported to have given tens of thousands of dollars in gifts to the governor and his family.

"I have been both disappointed, but it's hurt me personally. In 37 years, no one's raised questions about my integrity or my character," McDonnell said. "That company has received no state benefits, no economic development grants, no targeted money out of the budget, no board appointments. They've received nothing."

Sabato acknolwedges it's hard to violate Virginia's ethics laws. He calls them "loose," written by politicians for politicians.

In McDonnell's case, though, "he's been right on the edge of the law," Sabato said. "It may be inside, it may be outside."

The allegations began with Virginia Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider, who accused the governor and his family of taking items from the kitchen. Schneider is currently facing embezzlement charges for allegedly taking food from the mansion to use for his own catering business. But his allegations against the governor have expanded to include the gifts from Williams.

All that considered, McDonnell said Virginians should still have faith in him and his administration.

"To suggest that we're doing anything different at the Governor's Mansion than Mark Warner or Tim Kaine or Jim Gilmore or George Allen did, from my knowledge, it's the same policies that have always been used," McDonnell said. "And unfortunately, there are some people that are facing felony charges right now that are making allegations that I think are absolutely incorrect."

The offices of former governors Warner and Kaine, both U.S. senators, declined to comment on McDonnell's remarks.

Still, the luxurious gifts from Williams are a large part of what's tainting the governor's image now.

"I certainly didn't think it would get to this point," Sabato said. "We've been proud of the fact that Virginia has been relatively clean. I'm not sure we can make that claim anymore."

Last weekend, a conservative blogger wrote a post claiming the governor's resignation was forthcoming as part of a plea deal with prosecutors. The governor's spokesman denied that claim, and the governor echoed it this week.

"I don't know where these things come from. Some of the press accounts have been completley out of control about rumors about resignation," McDonnell said. "I am thoroughly enjoying and being incredibly productive, I think, with my team."

Sabato says being productive is one way the governor could try to salvage his wavering legacy.

"Propose a tough, new ban on gifts," he said. "Call a special session of the General Assembly. Who knows, he may do that. He's got time enough."

Sabato said McDonnell's legacy will include this year's landmark transportation reform, but the future of the man once thought to be a presidential contender in 2016 is looking different.

"Gov. McDonnell will probably have a long, happy career in private life," Sabato said. "I can't imagine any other public office for him. I don't think his party wants to renominate him."

As the gubernatorial race carries on, McDonnell is also looking toward what's next in his career.

"I've got a master's degree in business, so I thought maybe going back into business that I haven't done in a very, very long time might be something of interest," he said. "So I'm looking at a couple of options."

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