What’s up with this maybe-scandal in Virginia?

Yesterday, CNN reported that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice and FBI over $120,000 in campaign contributions he received via businesses owned by Wang Wenliang.

Putting the words “McAuliffe,” “ongoing investigation” and “campaign contributions” in the same sentence confirmed many suspicions people have about McAuliffe. The former head of the DNC and prolific Clinton fundraiser has always come off as a bit of a sleazebag. Hell, this is a guy who put a story in his autobiography about the time he left his wife in the delivery room while she was giving birth to their daughter to swing by a party hosted by the Washington Post.

However, once you get past CNN’s headline — “Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe under federal investigation for campaign contributions — the actual story seems pretty thin. Once you get a few paragraphs in you learn that, while it’s super illegal to take donations from foreign nationals, Wang Wenliang has permanent resident status in the United States. This means that he is almost certainly allowed to make political donations. In fact, he’s been a regular donor to other causes — some political, some not — in recent years.

You also learn that while Wang has donated to the Clinton Global Initiative, where McAuliffe previously served as a board member and could arguably be the most suspicious part of the two’s relationship, “there is no allegation that the foundation did anything improper; the probe has focused on McAuliffe and the electoral campaign donations.”

CNN’s report was apparently the first McAuliffe had heard that he was under investigation, and both he and his campaign’s lawyer, Marc Elias, have insisted that nothing illegal took place. To be honest, and in spite of the fact that McAuliffe has struck me as a somewhat shady money man, I’m inclined to believe them, for two reasons:

Terry McAuliffe, photo by Kate Wellington.

Terry McAuliffe, photo by Kate Wellington.

First, the CNN report is incredibly vague and references an investigation that has gone on for over a year already. This says to me that it was leaked in order to do political damage. McAuliffe is coming off of a handful of political victories for Democrats in Virginia — from his executive order restoring the franchise to ex-felons to the Supreme Court rejecting a Republican appeal of a ruling which held that the state’s congressional map was racially gerrymandered — and he is also closely tied to Hillary Clinton, who counts Virginia as a top-tier target in November. Letting some air out of his balloon — putting an asterisk next to his felon re-enfranchisement order by cuing up a series of jokes about how it may have been in his own self-interest — is a hell of a way to start the general election campaign in the state.

Second, someone as experienced with fundraising as McAuliffe, especially someone who knows they will be a target given the office they’re running for and the soon-to-be presidential candidate they are closely tied to, really ought to know who he can and can’t raise money from. I think McAuliffe is well-aware where the lines are, and how to avoid crossing him. In this case, being a sleazy money man may be to his advantage.

I could be wrong, and McAuliffe could become the second Virginia governor in a row to be convicted of political crimes. It certainly would jive with everything we already sort of suspect about the man. But as it stands right now, the story isn’t as interesting as the headline.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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