Dietary supplements. A wedding caterer charged with embezzlement. Disputes about who’s picking up the bill. The makings of another downscale-America reality show? Nope. Rather, the features of an increasingly murky drama involving a man who not long ago at all was being considered a serious prospect for a Republican presidential ticket: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman and Laura Vozzella reported last month that the owner of a dietary supplement maker that is under federal investigation had given $15,000 to cover the catering costs at the 2011 wedding of McDonnell’s daughter at the state’s Executive Mansion (the catering was handled by the mansion’s former chef, who trained with Martha Stewart and has since been indicted on four embezzlement charges). Jonnie R. Williams Sr.’s generosity has gone far beyond the wedding check—his company, Star Scientific, donated more than $28,500 worth of air travel to McDonnell’s 2009 campaign and nearly $80,000 in flights to the governor’s PAC after he took office, and McDonnell has disclosed an additional $9,600 in food, lodging and transportation from Williams and Star Scientific in 2011 and 2012. But McDonnell did not disclose the $15,000 gift for the wedding costs, even though Virginia law requires him to disclose any gift of more than $50 value.
Moreover, the Post reported, Williams had good reason to be grateful to the McDonnells. Bob McDonnell’s wife Maureen, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader, flew to a Florida seminar three days before the wedding to strongly endorse to scientists and investors a new supplement the company was hoping would reverse its fortunes (10 straight years of losing money): “Anatabloc,” an anti-inflammatory whose key ingredient is found in tobacco and which, despite an absence of evidence or FDA approval, the company touts as a boon for people with Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other ailments. Three months after the wedding, the McDonnells hosted Williams at the governor’s mansion for Anatabloc’s official launch party. The company featured a picture of Bob McDonnell holding a packet of Anatabloc on its Facebook page.
McDonnell’s office has maintained that he did not need to disclose the check for the catering costs because it was a direct gift to his daughter. This put him in the slightly awkward position of suggesting that he did not play the traditional father-of-the-bride role in handling most of the wedding costs, an implication that would seem especially awkward for someone who prides himself on Old Virginia, family-values propriety. But in a follow-up report Tuesday, the Post reported that McDonnell was in fact more involved in the wedding finances and receipt of the Williams’ funds than he had suggested: “Documents … show that McDonnell signed the catering contract, making him financially responsible for the 2011 event. The governor made handwritten notes to the caterer in the margins. In addition, the governor paid nearly $8,000 in deposits for the catering. When the combination of the governor’s deposit and the gift from the donor resulted in an overpayment to the caterer, the refund check of more than $3,500 went to McDonnell’s wife and not to his daughter, her husband or back to the donor.”
It’s all good fun watching this play out, but what are we to make it? The Post’s revelations would of course make fodder for a pretty nifty 30-second attack ad. The question is whether McDonnell will ever be the subject of such an ad. He’s barred from running for reelection by Virginia’s one-term law. Back in 2010 and 2011, there was plenty of chatter about him as a 2012 vice-presidential prospect and, who knows, maybe a presidential candidate in later years—after all, he had seemed to remake himself successfully from a religious-right footsoldier who railed against “fornicators” to a pro-business, center-right executive of a prospering swing state, with a very camera-ready hair-part to boot. But then came the unfortunate matter of those “transvaginal ultrasounds” that Republican state legislators insisted on requiring of women seeking abortions, which, despite all McDonnell’s attempts to finesse the issue, raised the ghost of his culture-warrior past. Romney passed McDonnell over and one rarely hears McDonnell mentioned on the short list of 2016 hopefuls. He did not help his standing with conservatives nationwide when, in the just-completed legislative session, he signed a transportation funding package that raises hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and taxes."
And now this: Father of the Bride meets Drugstore Cowboy. There’s a sad irony in this denoucement. McDonnell’s successful makeover involved transforming himself from a disciple of Jerry Falwell into a model Virginia gentleman, sober and highbrow, in contrast with ideological brawlers like Ken Cuccinelli, the arch-conservative attorney general who is running to succeed him. But there’s nothing sober and highbrow about having a dietary-supplement maker funneling money to your daughter’s wedding. With just months left to go in McDonnell’s term, we must say: Bob, we hardly knew ye. Though who knows, in the years ahead we may see more of you yet—on late-night TV, hawking miracle pills.
Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis