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Virginia's attorney general cleared in ethics probe

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Virginia's attorney general, the Republican candidate in November's election for governor, was cleared on Thursday of wrongdoing in an ethics probe over $10,000 in gifts, free vacations and a catered Thanksgiving dinner he received from a company executive.

The investigation focused on whether Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli knowingly violated any sections of the state's conflict of interest act. In April, Cuccinelli updated his economic interest disclosures for the years 2009 to 2012 to reflect gifts received from Jonnie Williams Sr., chief executive of Richmond-area Star Scientific Inc dietary supplement company.

In the governor's race, polls show many voters are undecided between Cuccinelli and the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe. The incumbent, Bob McDonnell, has been mentioned as a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate but he too was being investigated about gifts received from Williams.

Richmond Commonwealth Attorney Mike Herring said a three-month investigation had found that Cuccinelli did not violate any laws by making the belated disclosures.

"Although one cannot help but question whether repeated omissions of gifts from Williams are coincidence or a pattern reflecting intent to conceal, the disclosure of several gifts and benefits from Williams in original statements suggests that the Attorney General was not attempting to conceal the relationship," Herring said in a report of the probe's findings.

Cuccinelli also held 8,600 shares of Star Scientific stock, which he sold in recent years at a time when the attorney general's office was responsible for representing a state tax agency in a tax dispute with the company.

Herring said the investigation found that Cuccinelli sold his stock, originally valued at more than $20,000, at "an aggregate loss."

"Our investigation finds no evidence that the Attorney General in any way promoted, supported or assisted Star Scientific while he had a financial interest in the company," the report said.

Federal and state officials are also investigating links between Star Scientific and McDonnell, who has acknowledged that his family has also received gifts from Williams.

The Washington Post has reported that Williams paid for $15,000 in catering services at the 2011 wedding of the governor's daughter, $15,000 in clothing for the governor's wife during a New York shopping trip and a $6,000 Rolex watch that the governor's wife gave to her husband.

McDonnell has said he did not disclose the gifts in his state disclosure filings because Virginia state law does not require state public officials to account for gifts to family members.

Dr. Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, said the report clearing Cuccinelli helps him distance himself from a broader political scandal engulfing McDonnell.

"By no means was the report a vindication of Cuccinelli," Sabato said. "He was sloppy in his gift reporting, and arguably shouldn't have been indebting himself to someone like Jonnie Williams. But Virginia's gift laws are very loose."

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Grant McCool)

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