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Virginia governor apologizes, repays campaign donor loans

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) during their annual meeting in Washington, Feb
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) during their annual meeting in Washington, Feb

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said on Tuesday his family had repaid controversial loans a top donor to his political campaigns had made to his wife and a family business, and he apologized for the embarrassment they had brought to the state.

McDonnell said his family had repaid more than $123,000 to Jonnie Williams, the chief executive of nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific Inc.

"I am deeply sorry for the embarrassment certain members of my family and I brought upon my beloved Virginia," said McDonnell, who has been mentioned as a possible 2016 Republican presidential contender. "I want you to know that I broke no laws and that I am committed to regaining your sacred trust."

Williams has given a number of gifts to the governor's family, including $15,000 in catering for the wedding of the governor's daughter and a watch to McDonnell's wife, according to local media. Federal and state authorities are probing McDonnell's relationship with Williams, local media reported.

McDonnell's statement made no mention of the gifts. Previously the governor has said he did not disclose the gifts in his state disclosure filings because Virginia law does not require state public officials to account for gifts to family members.

Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor and the current state attorney general, also has received gifts, including private jet flights and vacation lodgings, from the businessman.

A recent investigation by a local Democratic prosecutor found that Cuccinelli broke no laws in belatedly reporting more than $13,000 worth of gifts from Williams.

But Larry Sabato, a political analyst from the University of Virginia, said Cuccinelli is still tainted by the gifts, and that he, McDonnell and Williams are linked in the public's mind.

"The more McDonnell is hurt, the more Cuccinelli will suffer," Sabato said.

The governor's former chef is set to go on trial in October on felony embezzlement charges, and more disclosures about Williams and McDonnell might be forthcoming, the chef's defense attorneys have suggested.

However, in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 70 percent of voters said the furor over gifts to McDonnell would not make them more or less likely to vote for Cuccinelli in the November election.

Cuccinelli's opponent in the gubernatorial race is Terry McAuliffe, a former national Democratic Party chairman.

On Saturday, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli held their first public debate of the gubernatorial race, with both calling for McDonnell to consider resigning over the incident.

A Quinnipiac University poll showed McAuliffe with the support of 43 percent of voters, with Cuccinelli trailing with 39 percent. But a poll by Roanoke College gave the Republican a 37 percent to 31 percent lead over McAuliffe.

Both polls were conducted earlier this month. The Quinnipiac poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The Roanoke College poll had a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.

(Reporting by Gary Robertson; Editing by Scott Malone, Gary Hill and Eric Beech)

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