Virginia Governors and Expensive Gifts

Bob McDonnell is not the first Old Dominion chief executive to supplement their income while in office.

Virginia Welcome Sign

Virginia Bob McDonnell has rightly come under substantial scrutiny for taking large gifts from people with business before the Commonwealth. Jim Geraghty points out (“Virginia’s Long Tradition of Expensive Gifts to Governors“)  that he’s not without company:

There was McDonnell’s immediate predecessor, Tim Kaine, now one of the state’s two senators:

        Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, accepted an $18,000 Caribbean vacation last year, putting him atop the list of Virginia elected officials who in 2005 accepted nearly $315,000 in gifts, trips, concert tickets and other gratuities from corporations, interest groups and wealthy persons.
        The newly elected governor’s winter getaway on Mustique — a private island playground for rock stars and royalty — was paid for by Albemarle County investor James B. Murray Jr.

Murray had contributed $41,000 to Kaine’s campaigns up to that point, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Kaine reappointed Murray to the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Appointments.

The VPAP site reveals that since 2001, Kaine received $186,899 in gifts and travel - Redskins ticketscases of wine, etc.

Before Kaine, Virginia’s governor was Mark Warner, now the state’s other senator. Between 2001 and 2004, Warner received $190,362 in gifts and travel - $495 bottles of wine, a $450 “handmade dulcimer,” etc.

Geraghty thinks the operative difference is that McDonnell is a Republican while Kaine and Warner are Democrats. But it’s possible that the timing and concentration of gifts is the reason McDonnell’s actions are getting so much more attention. For example, Kaine’s $18,000 vacation came in the period between getting elected governor and being sworn in, whereas McDonnell’s windfall came while in the governor’s mansion. In terms of potential influence, that’s a meaningless distinction; in terms of media scrutiny, perhaps not so much.

Additionally, and more importantly, McDonnell came under fire not simply for taking the gifts but for failing to disclose them. Technically, under a strict interpretation of Virginia law, he wasn’t actually required to report many of the gifts, since they were to his wife and daughters rather than him personally. But, from a public perception standpoint, the appearance of impropriety remains.

State and local politics is by no means my specialty and I may simply be naive about how much of this goes on. Is McDonnell—and, indeed, the Commonwealth of Virginia—an extreme outlier or is this sort of thing commonplace?  If the former, I wonder if Virginia’s bizarre rule that governors may serve only one four year term encourages more graft? There’s an old saw to the effect that ”If you can’t steal enough in four years to support yourself for the rest of your life, you’re too dumb to be here anyway.” Maybe Virginia’s governors take that literally, since their political careers are effectively over unless there’s an opening in the Senate. And, apparently, given that Kaine and Warner both won Senate seats, there’s not much penalty, anyway.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    Virginia is for lovers (of graft).


  2. Tony W says:

    The states with which I am familiar (western US) tend to have cleaned up this sort of blatant graft in exchange for much more subtle quid-pro-quo arrangements. It’s analogous to the move from the outlandish racist statements one heard in public media in the Mad Men era, compared to the modern ethic.

    Virginia is behind the times!

  3. rudderpedals says:

    Florida went through its clean government phase in the 70s. Since there are very strict rules regarding public meetings, ethics, sunshine and anticorruption, under Scott the cabinet and friends routinely decamp to the Caymans to do business and be closer to their money. Bermuda’s probably better for Virginians.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    The difference is that the Washington Post like Warner and Kaine while the Post has hated McDonnell for a very long time. The same can be seen in how the Post has covered the blatant incompetence of the O’Malley administration has been covered versus the coverage of the Republican governor. The editors of the Washington Post seen themselves as the protectors of the Democrats and uses a blatant double standard.