How does Virginia’s governor save face? Call a special session, maybe

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WHAT TO DO?: Gov. Bob McDonnell has options to save his reputation — like calling for a special session to amend the state’s gift and disclosure laws, experts say.

By Carten Cordell and Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA — Controversy continued to swirl around Gov. target=”_blank” href=”http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Bob_McDonnell”>Bob McDonnell Wednesday as more improper gift allegations surfaced in the wake of resignation rumors.

target=”_blank” href=”http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/va-politics/mcdonnells-corporation-wife-benefited-from-120000-more-from-donor-sources-say/2013/07/09/79b29880-e5b4-11e2-aef3-339619eab080_story.html”>A Washington Post report claimed Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams gave $70,000 last year to a corporation owned by McDonnell and his sister, in addition to $50,000 given to McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, in 2011. That brings the total Williams reportedly gave the McDonnells during 2011 and 2012 to $145,000, according to the Post.

While few are giving credence to target=”_blank” href=”http://bearingdrift.com/2013/07/06/what-goes-around-comes-around-bob-mcdonnell-to-resign-as-governor-over-corruption-charges/”>rumors that appeared on conservative blog Bearing Drift that McDonnell would resign, some say the beleaguered governor desperately needs to change the conversation — even if that means calling for a special session of the Legislature to toughen the state’s gift and disclosure laws.

Clarke Caywood, a public relations professor at the target=”_blank” href=”http://www.medill.northwestern.edu”>Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois, said one of the challenges the McDonnell administration faces is shifting the focus from scandal to the issues important to Virginia.

“I wouldn’t spend more than 10 percent of my time on those charges, unless I’m guilty,” Caywood said. “No matter how much pressure the press put on him, the governor still has the obligation to run the state. You don’t want a government where charges can create such dysfunction in the state.”

To shift the conversation, Caywood said the governor’s office should let the public know it is focused on specific issues imperative to the state and not the resignation rumors surrounding McDonnell.

“If I were working in the governor’s office, I would be working awfully hard to make sure the state of Virginia is well-served no matter what the rumors are,” he said. “I would say, ‘Look, these stories are not true. In the meantime, there are five issues that face Virginia right now and that’s our job.’

“If necessary, call the assembly back into session, that’s always a way to distract people a little bit, but give them something to do,” Caywood said. “Don’t let them harp on your alleged resignation.”  

Well, calling for a special session to tighten up Virginia’s gift and disclosure laws is one option for McDonnell. State law allows politicians to accept gifts up to an unlimited amount. Gifts to family members do not have to be reported.

That’s exactly what Coby Dillard, vice-chairman of the Norfolk Republican Party who calls himself a personal friend of the governor, urged McDonnell to do target=”_blank” href=”http://hamptonroads.com/2013/07/prescription-governors-troubles”>in a Virginian-Pilot guest column published Tuesday.

“By calling the General Assembly into session for the purpose of fixing the state’s lax disclosure laws, and by signing whatever law results from that session, McDonnell can show himself willing to close the loopholes that allowed him to skirt the edge of those laws,” Dillard wrote.

In Virginia, the law allows both the governor and the General Assembly, at the request of two-thirds of the members of each house, to call a special session.

McDonnell’s office did not respond to multiple requests asking whether the governor will call for a special session to amend the gift and disclosure laws.

Delegate target=”_blank” href=”http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Bob_Marshall,_Virginia_Representative”>Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, has called for amending the gift and disclosure law to include disclosures for gifts given to family members, gifts given during the general session and gifts given by those doing business with the state.

Marshall said he would support a special session to implement those changes, but added that the General Assembly needs to more thoroughly examine the laws in January.

“Some of this stuff requires slow, methodical, precise, analytical looks at what you are doing here,” he said. “The easy fix is to include the relatives. (The amendments outlined on his website) would work for that, but we would need to go beyond that.

“It requires people to sit down and analyze this stuff without being under the gun with your questions right now,” Marshall said.

Speaker of the House and Rules Committee Chairman target=”_blank” href=”http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Bill_Howell”>Bill Howell, R-Fredericksburg, said reforms are needed, but reform can wait until 2014’s general session kicks off in January. Virginia has no specific ethics committee.

“First of all, I can’t call a special session,” Howell said. “The governor can call a special session. The Legislature can call a special session by a three-quarter vote. So, I can’t call a special session. Secondly, if I could, I don’t think I’d do it. We’re looking at reforms. There are reforms that need to be made, there’s no question about that. And we’re looking at them. But I think if we do them in the regular course of events in 2014, we’ll be fine.”

Howell didn’t elaborate on just what those reforms might look like, but he said members of his caucus are “looking at different ideas” and together, they will “put it all together and come up with a logical plan.”

Carten Cordell and Kathryn Watson are reporters for the Virginia Bureau of Watchdog.org, and can be reached target=”_blank” href=”mailto:[email protected]”>at [email protected], atarget=”_blank” href=”mailto:[email protected]”>nd [email protected].

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