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Cuccinelli's campaigning draws fire
Monday, September 16, 2013
By BOB LEWIS - AP Political Writer
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, described 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 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.