When news broke last week that former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted on 14 counts of corruption related to accepting more than $165,000 in gifts from a single private citizen, news viewers let out a collective yawn. Well, it’s time to suck that yawn back in, America. This actually matters.
McDonnell and his wife have officially pled not guilty of accepting, among other things, a $50,000 loan with two-year term at 5 percent interest; $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding; an all expenses paid trip to New York City complete with shopping trips in the thousands of dollars to Oscar de la Renta, Louis Vuitton and Berdorf Goodman; and use of the donor-in-question’s personal Ferrari whenever they asked for it.
All of these gifts came from Jonnie R. Williams, a Richmond businessman and the former head of Star Scientific — a company that makes dietary supplements from tobacco products. Seriously.
While this might seem like a clear-cut case — after all, the gifts are incredibly well documented — it’s absolutely not, and will test the line between simple gift giving and paid-for favors. The prosecution must prove that McDonnell intended to offer Williams political favors in return for the gifts, or they lose their argument.
And intent is difficult to prove — recall the jury for Rob Blagojevich’s corruption trial, which had a tape of the former Illinois governor attempting to sell President Obama’s Senate seat and still managed to deadlock over most of the charges during his first trial.
McDonnell is so confident that the government cannot prove this intent that he reportedly rejected a plea deal that would have spared him and his wife from prosecution.
“Clearly, if the government can tie a gift to an expectation with respect to a specific act, that is going to be sufficient to make out the charge of honest services,” Barry Pollack, a white-collar defense attorney in Washington told The Washington Post. “But if all they’re able to do is to show that when the gifts were made, Gov. McDonnell intended that he would provide some general consideration in return — but no specific act was in mind — that may or may not be sufficient.”
For now, McDonnell’s defense is essentially that he was a mooch. Which, though embarrassing, isn’t illegal.
In a news conference Tuesday, McConnell told reporters he did nothing “illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believe was his personal friendship and generosity…Mr. Williams and his company never received any government benefit of any kind from me or my administration.”
It seems that much of the McDonnells’ reliance on Williams stemmed from mounting personal finance issues.
“We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!” Maureen McDonnell wrote in an e-mail — double exclamation points and all — to her husband’s aide in December 2009, after the aide expressed concerns over Williams offering to purchase her inaugural gown. “I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.”
The McDonnells, it seems, were caught in the housing crisis of 2008 just like everyone else when the property values plummeted on two expensive beach houses they purchased in Virginia Beach with the intent of renting out; rental demand fell on the properties and they struggled to make payments. They twice went to Williams for personal loans to cover the mortgages. The first loan of $50,000 was made after Maureen McDonnell reached out to Williams saying they were having “severe financial difficulties” and that she could help Star Scientific in exchange.
Mrs. McDonnell seems, at least on the surface, to be the one organizing the entire show. The closest relationship in this tangled web of gifts and loans is that of the First Lady of Virginia and Williams, as she was the one who organized a luncheon for Williams and his company as well as meetings between him and Virginia health officials. The real question now is whether the governor was also part of this planning and, if not, how much he knew about what she was doing.
All of this came as a big disappointment to the Republican Party, which sought to make McDonnell their next shining star. Right after he took office, the Republican Party tasked him with giving the official response to Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address, which he did with ease — even managing to keep eye contact with the camera. He continued to rise to national popularity during his first term, and his name was even tossed around as a potential vice presidential candidate for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. Regardless of the outcome of this investigation, it’s unlikely that McDonnell will ever rise to popularity again.
Next up for McDonnell is the trial, which is scheduled to start in July.