RICHMOND, Va. - In the midst of a covert Middle East trip to visit American troops, Gov. Bob McDonnell isn't discussing gifts from a major political donor and personal benefactor.
The Republican governor spoke with The Associated Press by telephone Wednesday from Kabul, Afghanistan, and said there will be time after he returns to discuss thousands of dollars' worth of gifts from Jonnie R. Williams, the chief executive of Star Scientific, a troubled Virginia nutritional supplements manufacturer.
McDonnell's private legal and public relations team issued a statement Tuesday announcing that he had repaid nearly $125,000 worth of personal and business loans Williams made to McDonnell, his wife and his sister. Neither the loans nor the gifts were disclosed on McDonnell's annual statements of economic interest.
He denies wrongdoing and defends not reporting them, citing a state ethics law. The law is rated among the nation's weakest and compels disclosure only of gifts directly to officeholders, not their families, and exempts gifts from people considered personal friends, as McDonnell claims Williams to be.
"It's proper to hold people accountable to what the current law is, and if there are aspirations to improve that based on the current discussion, then I think that is a fair and legitimate discussion," he said in a 25-minute conversation.
The loans and the gifts are the subject of federal and state investigations into McDonnell's relationship with Williams and whether the governor used his office to help promote Star Scientific's anti-inflammatory supplement, Anatabloc, in return. Neither McDonnell nor his family has been accused of criminal wrongdoing.
"I have been, obviously, very saddened with the concerns that have been expressed about things that I have done in my personal financial dealings as governor," McDonnell said in the interview. "I thought this would be something critically important for me to do."
New, almost daily disclosures in news reports of additional largesse from Williams to the governor's family have eroded his public support to its lowest point yet. A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed only 46 per cent of those surveyed approved of his performance in office, a drastic plunge from October 2011 when two-thirds in the same poll approved and he was considered a leading Republican vice-presidential prospect.
He restated his intent not to resign, despite calls from Democrats for him to step down and erroneous blog reports earlier this month that his resignation was imminent.
On Tuesday, McDonnell's private advisers said in a news release he had repaid $52,278 Williams' personal loan to first lady Maureen McDonnell, and Williams' $71,837 loan to MoBo Real Estate Partners, a business the governor owns jointly with his sister.
Asked for a similar accounting of Williams' gifts, including a $15,000 check in 2011 to his daughter, Cailin, to cover catering costs for her Executive Mansion wedding reception, he said there will be a time for that.
"Obviously there's a review of my statements going on. I've filled these out for 22 years, I've always been diligent in my understanding of what the law requires to be done, but I think the people of Virginia are looking at this and other situations and saying, 'Look, the disclosure laws may not be adequate, we may want to know more to be sure that there is not any undue influence of anybody at all in government.' And that's a legitimate question," he said.
"Going down the road I will have some further things to say and actions that I will take and suggestions that I will make," he said.
McDonnell began his trip Monday by visiting wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., before the Pentagon flew him secretly, for security reasons, to Kuwait and then to Afghanistan. He will visit a U.S. military hospital in Germany before returning home over the weekend.
He said he was surprised that Virginians on duty in those countries were as informed as they are about events back home.
"I talked to both a captain yesterday and a master chief today that were asking me about the situation about the tolls in Portsmouth," he said, referring to disputes over tolling for tunnels that would connect the city to Norfolk beneath the Elizabeth River.
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