Monday, May 20, 2013
Just 2 forgettable vacations for Ken Cuccinelli
Jonnie Williams co-owns two houses at the lake and has hosted the attorney general and Gov. McDonnell.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
This home at 330 Upland Shores Drive, in the Waters Edge community at Smith Mountain Lake, is owned by Jonnie and Celeste Williams. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Gov. Bob McDonnell have both stayed at at least one of Williams’ lake properties at the tobacco magnate’s expense.
To get to one of the most noteworthy homes of late on Smith Mountain Lake, you head east on Virginia 40 from Rocky Mount. Pass the one-horse communities of Redwood and Glade Hill. Soon you’ll come to Penhook and the local landmark known as Carl’s Place, a friendly diner and gas station.
Just past Carl’s, follow some back roads for 3 to 4 miles to the lushly landscaped golf community called Water’s Edge. A little ways off a cul de sac at the end of Upland Shores Drive, you’ll find No. 330, a house owned by Jonnie and Celeste Williams.
Built in 1993, the cedar and stone-sided mansion stands on two waterfront acres, behind some shade-providing trees on a point that juts out into the lake’s Blackwater River side. There’s a stone-paver driveway with a turning circle, six parking spaces and an attached, two-car garage. It’s currently listed for sale at $3.9 million.
There’s another waterfront home in Water’s Edge that Jonnie Williams owns with his son, Jonnie Jr. It’s at 125 Sconset Drive, and is smaller and is also for sale — for $649,000.
Neither home is particularly noteworthy at Smith Mountain Lake, where scores of similar mansions dot 500-some miles of shoreline. Instead, the recent prominence comes from the friends of Williams — a car dealer turned tobacco magnate — whom he’s gifted with lake vacations in recent years.
One is Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor, who’s vacationed three times at Williams’ expense. Twice, in 2011 and 2012, Williams gave Cuccinelli a week in the summer (value of each: $3,000), according to the attorney general’s recently amended financial disclosures.
Once, in 2010, Williams provided a place to Cuccinelli for a four-day Thanksgiving retreat (value: $1,500). For that, Williams also provided a catered dinner.
Another is Gov. Bob McDonnell. In 2011, according to the governor’s financial disclosure, Williams gave McDonnell $2,268 worth of lodging and entertainment at Smith Mountain Lake. Williams has lavished other gifts upon the governor as well.
It’s not clear which house either official stayed in. Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Cuccinelli, said the attorney general had answered enough questions about his gifts from Williams.
Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the governor, said he didn’t know but would ask. I didn’t hear back from him by deadline.
Complicating the matter is that for more than a decade, Virginia has been trying to collect unpaid taxes from Star Scientific, a company headed by Williams. The amount now stands at $1.7 million. Until April, when Cuccinelli recused the attorney general’s office, it had been handling the case, which lies more or less dormant in the Mecklenburg County courthouse.
Accepting gifts such as week long stays in a waterfront mansion is legal for Virginia politicians. The law requires they report them on annual disclosures. That is where both McDonnell and Cuccinelli have dropped some ethics balls.
The governor failed to report the $15,000 payment Williams made for catering at the governor’s daughter’s wedding — explaining that he considered it a gift to his daughter, rather than himself. The FBI is now investigating that one.
Cuccinelli initially failed to report the $1,500 four-day Thanksgiving stay and catered dinner in 2010, and one of the $3,000 week long summer vacations William gave Cuccinelli. The attorney general voluntarily amended his disclosures this year to add the items.
Cuccinelli’s explanation for the lapse? He forgot.
That’s the part that seems difficult to believe. Would you ever forget staying in a $3.9 million waterfront home for free — or a $650,000 one — if you were ever lucky enough do so? It seems hard to fathom.
Last week I took a drive down to Jonnie and Celeste Williams’ lake house. Forgettable is not the kind of adjective I would use to describe it, or the Sconset Drive house Williams owns with his son. Unforgettable is more like it.
From the street side, the Upland Shores home has painted gray cedar siding with black shutters and a wood-shingle gabled roof. On the part that faces the water, the siding is mostly stone. There are upper- and lower-level covered verandas and an 18 x 41-foot patio enclosed by a short stone wall. There a terraced lawn down to the shoreline, where there’s a private beach.
According to Franklin County real estate records, the house also has a 24 x 26-foot boat house; a 6 x 27-foot dock pier; a 13 x 26-foot dock; two floating docks (12 x 32 feet and 7 x 24 feet); and a covered dock that’s 20 x 25 feet.
The county real estate records and the more recent real estate listing diverge a bit as to the home’s actual dimensions and amenities.
County records show it sports 7,201 finished square feet (the real estate listing says 6,855). County records list it as having four bedrooms and five full baths (the real estate listing says seven bedrooms, six full baths and two half-baths).
Real estate agent Vicki Millehan, who listed the property about a month and a half ago, could not explain those discrepancies. No potential buyers have yet looked at the house, she added. She declined to comment further about it.
The house is 1.7 stories, according to county real estate records, which value the land and improvements at $1.9 million for tax purposes. The real estate listing says a vaulted ceiling on the main level is 23 feet tall.
It stands on 2 acres at the end of a cul de sac, set off by a driveway that appears at least 100 feet long. Perhaps that explains why Williams’ own neighbors don’t see him often.
“We’ve never even seen them since we moved in last year — sorry,” next door neighbor Beth Baldwin told me.
Two more doors down is Bill Beck, who moved to the lake from North Carolina.
“I’ve never even met Jonnie Williams. I’ve lived here for eight years,” Beck said. “The house is almost never occupied. I’ve seen people down there, and I’ve been told the governor was there and Cuccinelli was there, but I’ve never seen either one of them.”
But “I have seen black SUVS running up and down the street,” Beck added.