POLITICS

Gov. McDonnell apologizes for gift scandal

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Gov. Bob McDonnell has already apologized publicly for the gift scandal that's engulfed his final year in office, but he did it directly to the General Assembly as one of his last acts while in office.

While addressing lawmakers on the first day of the 2014 legislative session Wednesday night, the outgoing Republican governor said he'd fallen short of the expectations he'd set for himself and that he was "deeply sorry" for the pain he had caused.

The governor is currently under federal and state investigation for accepting thousands of dollars' worth of gifts from former CEO Jonnie Williams of Star Scientific Inc., a dietary supplement maker. McDonnell has not been charged with any crime.

McDonnell asserted in his final State of the Commonwealth speech that he'd broken no laws and given no one any special treatment, but conceded that his actions left an "adverse public impression."

After his speech, McDonnell told reporters that apologizing directly to the General Assembly was "a good and wholesome and proper thing to do."

The apology was well received by legislators from both parties.

"I thought the apology was heartfelt and it was appropriate," said Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico. "As someone who believes in redemption, I hope the people of Virginia will join me and others in forgiving him."

Despite the scandal, McDonnell remains popular with many in the state legislature, where he'd served as a delegate before being elected state attorney general and then governor.

"I hope history will treat him kindly and with the respect and honor he deserves," said Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico.

McDonnell's successor, Democratic Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe, is set to be sworn in Saturday. Thus, with only days left in office, McDonnell's annual address to lawmakers was one of his last chances while still on the job to try to define his legacy.

He focused much of his address on Virginia's economic gains made under his administration, which he said include a net addition of 177,000 new jobs during his tenure.

McDonnell also highlighted what he said was strong stewardship of the state's economy and an increase in the state government's reserves from $295 million to more than $1 billion.

And the governor said it was a rare demonstration of election-year bipartisanship that gave him one of the biggest legislative victories of his four-year term: last year's hefty transportation funding plan designed to spend $6 billion during the next six years to help ease notoriously bad traffic, especially in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

McDonnell lauded his much-debated public education reforms. According to the governor, his was a "tough love, zero tolerance" approach in creating a state board to take over chronically underperforming schools, what he called the civil rights issue of the day.

McEachin said he was skeptical the state's education system was better off than it was at the beginning of McDonnell's term, but was reluctant to criticize too much about the Republican's term.

"This is his swan song and I want him to have his day," McEachin said.

McDonnell also called on lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment automatically restoring felons' voting rights, saying the move was "an important step for justice."

He said his streamlined process already in place for felons has resulted in more than 8,000 felons regaining their civil rights after serving their sentences. That's nearly twice as many as any previous administration. However, he said restoration of rights should not be left to the arbitrary judgment but should be a permanent part of the law.

In last year's State of the Commonwealth speech, the Republican surprised many lawmakers by asking them to support a felons' rights constitutional amendment - a proposal historically championed by Democrats. The proposal went nowhere.

A year ago, McDonnell's was an ascendant political star in the Republican Party. He'd been widely mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate in 2012, had led the influential Republican Governors Association in 2011, and was a popular governor in a swing state. But he leaves office amid unresolved criminal investigations and with his political future unclear.

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