RICHMOND, Va. (AP) —
Since 1957, at least nine Virginia attorneys general with aspirations to higher office have stepped down as the state’s chief lawyer and law-enforcement officer to run for governor.
Ken Cuccinelli rejected that precedent this year, and that decision has become a lightning rod for his Republican gubernatorial campaign.
By staying put, he has exposed himself and his campaign to several unflattering conflict-of-interest accusations since March, forcing him to clumsily disengage his office from several legal matters since March. Now he trails Democratic rival Terry McAuliffe in the most recent polling.
He’s recused his office from civil and criminal cases that involve Star Scientific Inc., a Henrico-based nutritional supplements manufacturer, and turned them over to private law firms.
Likewise, Cuccinelli’s office had to back away as the prosecutor in a felony theft case it launched against the former chef to Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family at the Executive Mansion.
It has been scorched more recently by questions about the role the office played in allegedly helping a major energy company fighting a lawsuit filed by southwestern Virginia residents who allege it is extracting gas from their land without paying them for it.
And then there’s the issue of Cuccinelli taking a $150,000-a-year state salary while spending much of his time running a political campaign.
Cuccinelli has never wavered on his intent to remain in office. In 2009, when he professed no designs on a governor’s race in four years, he said he’d serve out all four years no matter what. That didn’t change when he shocked Virginia politics and entered the governor’s race in late 2011. And, he said last week in an Associated Press interview that he would have stayed the course last winter even if he knew then what he knows now.
“If I was going to run for re-election as attorney general, there’s more absolute direct conflicts that people could be concerned about than running for governor,” Cuccinelli said. “I mean, I’m running to go from lawyer to client.”
Some attorneys general who departed early may have been off the state payroll, he noted, but most were paid by private law firms while they campaigned. “I’m just not as comfortable with that as some other people are.”
Running state government’s law firm is a huge job, even in less scandalous times. So is running a campaign for governor. And that’s essentially why each of the past six elected attorneys general — two Democrats and four Republicans — chose to run for governor full time and surrender the office to an appointed interim attorney general.
“I did it because I needed to focus on the governor’s race and on fundraising,” said Jerry W. Kilgore, who was elected attorney general in 2001 and left in early January 2005 before the opening of that year’s General Assembly would have prohibited him from raising money through February, when the legislature adjourned.
Kilgore, who lost the governor’s race that year to Democrat Tim Kaine, describ-ed the office as the place in government where the law, public policymaking and politics all converge, and where conflicts of interest questions are inevitable whether an incumbent runs for governor or for re-election. In other words, the ultimate Catch-22.
“No matter what, there are always going to be conflicts. And even if there aren’t, your opponents are going to make it look like a conflict,” Kilgore said.
Similar reasoning guided Jim Gilmore and McDonnell, both Republicans who departed the attorney general’s office early and landed in the governor’s office.
Cuccinelli’s first test came after an AP report in March that Star Scientific’s lawsuit over a $1.7 million state tax bill had languished in court since July 2011 with the attorney general’s office in charge of defending the Department of Taxation. Cuccinelli at the time owned more than $10,000 in the company’s stock and had reported in his 2011 state economic disclosure filings receiving gifts worth nearly $13,000 from the company’s chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. Two weeks later, in “an abundance of caution” and denying any conflicted interests, he turned the Tax Department’s defense over to a private firm.
By the end of April, the situation was much more politically sticky. News reports had linked McDonnell, a fellow Republican, to largesse from Williams, and federal authorities confirmed they were examining the governor’s ties to the businessman. The former mansion chef, Todd Schneider, had been indicted on counts alleging he stole state-owned items from the mansion kitchen, but Schneider fired back in court papers alleging he was instructed to take the items as payment in trade for personal services. Cuccinelli subsequently asked a judge to remove his office, citing conflicts of interest, and Schneider’s lawyer Steve Benjamin objected, questioning why Cuccinelli never raised conflict-of-interest concerns until Schneider alleged wrongdoing by others at the governor’s mansion.
Reaping bad press from all sides, Cuccinelli took two extraordinary steps just days apart in late April. He amended four years’ worth of economic disclosure forms to add $5,000 worth of gifts from Williams or his company that he had forgotten earlier, and he allowed journalists to review eight years’ worth of unabridged personal income tax returns — something McAuliffe has yet to match.
A Democratic Richmond prosecutor concluded that Cuccinelli’s belated disclosures about Williams’ gifts broke no state law. And though he said in July he would not return or reimburse Williams or his company for his gratuities, Cuccinelli last week announced he had given a Richmond charity $18,000 — the total value of the gifts.
Cuccinelli’s latest conflict springs from an investigation by Virginia’s inspector general into whether legal advice a deputy attorney general, Sharon Pigeon, gave to two energy companies being sued over nearly $30 million in disputed royalties. One of the companies is owned by Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy, which has given Cuccinelli’s campaign more than $111,000.
Cuccinelli said — and Kilgore concurs — that no attorney general can be involved in the hundreds of such cases that his subordinates routinely handle.
“In my experience, since I got to Richmond, I think we have been the most vigilant in my office about giving correct legal advice regardless of what all the other considerations might be,” he said.