Ken Cuccinelli: Virginia's Attorney General Investigates His Governor, and Then Investigates Himself

Et tu, Cuccinelli?

The sideshow to Virginia’s gubernatorial race is beginning to steal the spotlight. It is now known that Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s attorney general and Republican candidate for governor, was responsible for ordering an investigation into current Governor Bob McDonnell’s receipt of gifts from Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a dietary supplement company called Star Scientific. It’s exceptional enough for a gubernatorial candidate to launch a probe into the dealings of a current governor, but the real novelty bonus is that all three guys involved are buddies — and Cuccinelli himself received gifts from Williams that he had failed to disclose.

In the last three years, Williams has given thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts to Governor McDonnell that the governor has reportedly failed to disclose properly on legally required statements of economic interest. These private gifts, including use of a vacation home and catering at the governor’s daughter’s wedding, were in addition to private jet airfare and much larger sums of money that Williams and his company formally contributed to McDonnell’s political action committee.

The FBI is currently investigating these exchanges, which isn’t terribly surprising. More fascinating is the commonwealth’s own investigation, given that Attorney General Cuccinelli has also received thousands of dollars of gifts from Williams. Cuccinelli therefore finds himself in the awkward position of appointing a special prosecutor to conduct an investigation into both his and the governor’s undisclosed gifts from Williams. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office cites Cuccinelli’s desire for transparency as his reason for subjecting his own gifts to review, which may be why he now seems to be backing down from his prior proclamation that his office is exempt from FOIA requests.

This mess is happening against the backdrop of the race for governor, in which Cuccinelli is happy to continue receiving support from McDonnell. If the investigations don’t sway even the target of Cuccinelli’s probe against the gubernatorial candidate, then surely voters won’t care too much either. His investigation is arguably proof that he really is committed to doing his job. The cynical and contrary view, which seems more likely given Cuccinelli’s history, is that he is unusually and brazenly adept at using his office to accomplish his political ends.

Or maybe this type of abuse of office isn’t novel at all. There’s this sense that once more than one politician engages in the same kind of shady behavior, it’s no longer about the fault of those two individuals. It’s just “what politicians do.” In that kind of world, the best thing that a politician guilty of wrongdoing can do is hide behind the closest scapegoat. Even better for that guilty politician is when he has the legal authority formally to select the scapegoat, friend or not.

So maybe McDonnell should have seen it coming. And unlike Julius Caesar, he can always run for a House seat if the scandals are getting him down.

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