It has been a rough couple of years for Virginia governors. In 2014, Gov. Bob McDonnell was found guilty on corruption charges in a case that has since found its way to the Supreme Court. Now Terry McAuliffe, the state's sitting governor, is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and prosecutors from the public integrity unit of the Justice Department.
Why the Federal scrutiny? As is so often the case in this tense, fiercely partisan election cycle, accusations of campaign finance violations are to blame. Government officials told CNN that the FBI and Justice Department are looking into, among other things, $120,000 in donations from Wang Wenliang, a Chinese businessman, to McAuliffe's 2013 gubernatorial campaign.
Campaign contributions trigger investigation
Dating back to last year, federal prosecutors have been looking into McAuliffe's personal finances to see whether the governor's campaign violated election law compliance standards. While it wasn't immediately clear what potential violations were under investigation, the governor's foreign sources of income are the most likely target.
Under U.S. law, foreign nationals are barred from donating to any federal, state or local campaign. Punishment for doing so includes hefty fines up to imprisonment. But a spokesman for Wenliang told CNN the businessman held a green card, granting him U.S. permanent resident status and making him eligible to donate to McAuliffe's campaign.
CNN reported that the governor was not made aware of the investigation. McAuliffe, who has close ties to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill, told CNN he was "shocked" to learn of the investigation but has since pledged his full cooperation.
"Neither the governor nor his former campaign has knowledge of this matter, but as reported, contributions to the campaign from Mr. Wang were completely lawful," Marc Elias, McAuliffe campaign attorney, told CNN in a statement. "The governor will certainly cooperate with the government if he is contacted about it."
Repercussions of potential violations
Given the somewhat murky goals of the Federal investigation, many have turned their attention to McAuliffe's history with the Clintons. The governor is a long-time Clinton ally. He headed Hillary's presidential campaign in 2008, and according to The Washington Post, he served as an unpaid director for the Clinton Foundation until being elected to office.
The official who spoke to CNN acknowledged that McAuliffe's time with the charitable organization set up by former President Bill Clinton was a part of the ongoing investigation. However, neither of the Clintons nor the Clinton Foundation is in any way the target of the probe. Federal interest lies in the donations made by Wenliang.
"McAuliffe's political rivals have been quick to seize the investigation as a bludgeon."
Because of the businessman's ties to the Chinese government (he is a member of the National People's Congress and a government contractor), Wenliang's $120,000 donation to McAuliffe in 2013 and his $2 million donation to the Clinton Foundation this year have drawn increased scrutiny.
The Hill reported that the Republican National Committee was quick to play up McAuliffe's ties to the Clintons and Wenliang in a statement released shortly after CNN broke the story. As always, accusations of campaign finance violations become easy fodder for political warfare, from both sides of the aisle, even when no clear transgression is identified.
For now, the FBI and Justice Department say the investigation remains active and ongoing. The Post reported there was skepticism among prosecutors about whether the probe will actually lead to any real charges.
Politicians, candidates and political action committees embroiled in campaign finance investigations find them hard to shake. It's difficult to avoid political gamesmanship. Mistakes, on the other hand, can be sidestepped with diligent, knowledgeable PAC management. This contentious election season calls for nothing less.