Cuccinelli Separates from McDonnell as Giftgate Scandal Grows

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli

As Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell faces an ever-growing investigation into gifts he accepted in office, the Republican who hopes to replace him this fall, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is doing what he can to keep his distance.

“What we’ve all been seeing has been very painful for Virginia, and it’s been completely inconsistent with Virginia’s very reserved traditions,” said Cuccinelli of the scandal engrossing his fellow Republican in an email to TIME. “Right now there are two investigations running, one of which began with my referral, and we need to let those play out; however, all of this emphasizes the need for clearer and faster disclosures that cover the whole family, as well as a cap on the size and types of gifts.”

Terry McAuliffe, Cuccinelli’s Democratic opponent, has been trying to find ways to make the McDonnell mess stick to Cuccinelli, asking him to endorse an outright ban of any gift over $100 to all Virginia elected officials and their immediate family. “Cuccinelli’s repeated refusal to support a gift ban reflects a tenure that has embarrassed Virginia and hurt the reputation of the Office of the Attorney General,” says the press secretary for McAuliffe, Josh Schwerin. “There are ongoing investigations that will provide concrete facts and evidence so that Virginians know exactly what happened.”

Cuccinelli’s campaign believes that McAuliffe’s proposal is hypocritical. “Terry McAuliffe has zero credibility when proposing stricter gift laws,” says Anna Nix, spokesperson for Cuccinelli. “Considering he wrote in his autobiography, ‘It’s a lot easier to raise money for a governor. They have all kinds of business to hand out, road contracts, construction jobs, you name it.’”

McDonnell’s corporation and wife, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, have received $120,000 more from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. than McDonnell had previously disclosed. Williams paid $15,000 to cater the 2011 wedding of the governor’s daughter, Cailin, at the executive mansion. The Post reported that Williams also gave a $10,000 check as a present to McDonnell’s eldest daughter, Jeanine, to help pay for the cost of her wedding earlier this year. A federal grand jury hears testimony this week to judge if McDonnell and his wife Maureen inappropriately assisted Williams’ company, Star Scientific, in exchange for gifts. Separately, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring, on behalf of Cuccinelli, is looking into whether the governor has complied with all state disclosure laws. Given Virginia’s ethics laws, which rank among the weakest in the union by the State Integrity Investigation, McDonnell may not be convicted, but he is under growing pressure, and two legislators have asked him to resign.

Cuccinelli, who frequently campaigned with McDonnell during his ’09 run for the governorship, and later defended with McDonnell Virginia’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, has been tied to the scandal because he has stayed at Williams’ home, and failed to disclose for nearly a year that he held over $10,000 worth of stock in Star Scientific, as state law requires. Because of this conflict, he has not participated in the probe into McDonnell, and had to appoint an outside counsel from a tax dispute case Star Scientific brought against the state.

Two Virginia state senators, Democrats Chad Petersen and Barbara Favola, have asked Gov. McDonnell to resign, but they have been less condemning of Cuccinelli. Of the Attorney General, Petersen told TIME only that “his office has been compromised” and “it looks like the watchdog was asleep.” Dick Saslaw, the state senate minority leader, says Cuccinelli “ought to come clean.” The Cuccinelli campaign denies any wrongdoing.

McDonnell has argued that under Virginia law, elected officials can accept gifts of any size, including money, provided they annually disclose those worth at least $50. The law does not require the disclosure of gifts given to members of an elected official’s immediate family, nor gifts provided by relatives or “personal friends.” Some Democrats say they hope to change the law in the coming legislative session. “Count on that,” Saslaw told TIME.

“I made the determination — and I believe it was correct — that it was a gift to my daughter and therefore under the current laws did not need to be disclosed,” McDonnell said in an April interview with WTOP radio. He said the decision to accept the $15,000 gift from Williams was ultimately his daughter’s. “It’s caused a fair amount of pain for me, personally,” he added. In the same interview, he expressed that he was open to reforming the disclosure laws.

David “Mudcat” Saunders, a Virginia Democratic strategist, says Cuccinelli is not a crook. “I remember when he was staying down there at that guy’s [Williams] house. We went shooting two times that week over on Rocky Mountain. I guarantee if Cuccinelli thought he was doing something wrong he damn sure wouldn’t have told me,” said Saunders, who served as a consultant on Mark Warner’s campaign for governor and Jim Webb’s campaign for Senate.

So far the Cuccinelli campaign is focusing on McAuliffe. In an open memo released Wednesday afternoon, Chris LaCivita, the Virginia GOP strategist wrote, “In the history of American poiltics, there has never been a gubernatorial candidate more embroiled in political scandal and questionable financial dealings than Terry McAuliffe.”

The statement is clearly an effort at shifting the focus of the voting public, one that is emblematic of the most negative campaign now playing out in American politics. Cuccinelli and McAuliffe, are tied in a dead heat, according to the Real Clear Politics rolling average.

It seems likely that Cuccinelli will further separate himself from the Governor.

“I don’t think Cuccinelli will hesitate because he and McDonnell don’t much like each other anyway,” says Larry Sabato, the Director of the University Center for Politics. “The Republicans are going to have to throw McDonnell overboard.”