Former McDonnell adviser, Minchew, had ‘never heard of Jonnie Williams’
Now, Minchew, like thousands of McDonnell loyalists, residents of the commonwealth and political observers across the country, know Williams' name well.
The CEO of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based supplement manufacturing company, Williams has lavished tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts on Gov. McDonnell and his wife Maureen – gifts that have sparked an FBI investigation and have the potential to pulverize the legacy of the former vice-presidential contender.
The financial dealings and federal investigation have drenched headlines in the Washington Post, which first broke the story, and other state and national media outlets. And it was these stories that first enlightened Minchew on Williams' extravagant gifts to the Republican governor and his wife.
“I never met [Williams], never received an email, never heard his name,” Minchew said, reflecting on his time as a McDonnell adviser.
McDonnell the compartmentalizer
Minchew's tenure as part-time legal counsel and adviser in the governor's office began in August 2010 and lasted in earnest until May 2011, when he launched a successful campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates 10th District seat. Minchew technically wasn't relieved of his duties as counselor to the governor until he won the local election in November 2011, but from May of that year until November, he did not communicate in a work capacity with the governor's office, he said.
In Minchew's time serving alongside McDonnell, Williams' Star Scientific donated thousands of dollars to the governor's political action committee – Opportunity Virginia – and Williams paid for a $15,000 shopping spree for Maureen McDonnell in New York City in April or May 2011. Some of the gifts took place around the time Star Scientific was looking to heighten its brand with the state.
Yet Minchew was unaware of the relationship – something possible for one simple reason, the delegate said: Gov. McDonnell has always strived to compartmentalize his public life.
Minchew said the governor aimed to never let political activity – fundraisers, Executive Mansion events, even his duties as head of the Republican Governor's Association – seep into his gubernatorial responsibilities in Virginia. Everything was separate. The governor would've never had people earning a state salary working in his hard politics realm, the delegate said.
There was governing on one hand and politics on the other – a Rolex on one wrist while the other worked signing a bill into law.
More than four months now into the examination of the McDonnells' financial ties to Williams, Minchew maintains a belief there's been no impropriety in the McDonnell administration.
“I believe this governor has always acted in good faith and in the best interest of the people in the commonwealth,” Minchew said.
McDonnell's Policy Office
An attorney based in Leesburg in his private life, Minchew dealt strictly with detailed policy and legal implementation for the governor, he said.
“Our client was the office of the governor. We served the office, not the man. We never had anything dealing with the governor's politics,” said Minchew.
Minchew's former supervisor in the governor's Policy Office, Jacob Jasen Eige, still serves in the cabinet-level post of counselor and senior policy adviser for McDonnell. In his position, Eige oversees the governor's Policy Office, including the direction and creation of McDonnell's policy agenda and legislative efforts. He is paid a public salary of more than $160,000.
Spokesmen for the governor's office said Eige was on vacation and could not be reached for comment for this story.
“The policy office is responsible for spearheading Gov. McDonnell’s policy and legislative initiatives, either by shepherding them the legislative process or implementing them through executive action,” Taylor Thornley Keeney, McDonnell's press secretary, said via email.
Working part-time in the McDonnell Policy Office, Minchew reported a salary of more than $10,000 from the state in 2010 and 2011, according to disclosures at the Virginia Public Access Project. Factoring in travel and time away from his private practice, Minchew said his labor in the administration was essentially “pro-bono.”
“No gas, vehicle usage, meals, expenses, or other incidental costs were included,” Minchew stated. “I have yet to figure out if I broke even on this.”
Tightening up the laws
On the topic of ethics and political finance in the commonwealth, Minchew said the laws need reforming and “tightening up.”
Specifically, he's interested in the creation of a bipartisan ethics commission and required financial disclosures for immediate family members of elected officials. He said he would carry legislation to enact those measures if reelected in November.
Political newcomer Monte Johnson, a Democrat, is challenging Minchew for the 10th District seat.
The Republican also referred to the grand jury report resulting from an investigation into Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio, which pointed out that “part-time” lawmakers can't be criminally charged if they misuse public assets.
“That's something that really stuck out to me,” Minchew said. “Anybody, whether it's a local or state legislator, is entrusted to serve the people.”
How the law is now, Minchew added, the misuse of public assets clause isn't applicable to anyone but statewide officials.
Unlike another Republican lawmaker and friend of the governor from Loudoun, Del. David Ramadan (R-87th), Minchew doesn't support calling a special session to take up ethics reform. He reasoned that, because many delegates are in hard-fought campaigns for November's election, financial disclosure and ethics reforms may not garner the full attention they need.
“My thought is that it probably would be better to have this ethics package that's drafted, that's researched when we get together in 2014,” Minchew said.