Former Virginia Governor McDonnell Indicted With Wife For Corruption

220px-Bob_McDonnell_by_Gage_SkidmoreVirginia has been rocked by the indictment of Robert F. “Bob” McDonnell, a former state attorney general and his wife, Maureen, on corruption charges. The couple is accused of accepting loans, gifts, vacations and the use of a private plane from Jonnie Williams Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based dietary supplement company. Like many in Virginia, I was floored by the sheer size of the gifts that exceeded $140,000. For a person who clearly aspired to national office, it was not just potentially crime but just plain stupid. Yet, I did not view the indictment as overwhelming in the proof of an actual crime due to the lack of any clear use of official power or authority to benefit Williams.

The record is pretty damning of the couple which is depicted as eager to receive gifts. In one email, Maureen McDonnell writes to an aide who is concerned about an offer by Williams to buy her inaugural gown. She states “We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.” She clearly reached the wrong answer when she later took a “rain check” and accepted free purchases from Williams on a shopping binge to New York, including $11,000 for clothes at Oscar de la Renta and $5,685 in items at Louis Vuitton and $2,604 at Bergdorf Goodman.

McDonnell is facing 14 count indictment, including charges of honest-services wire fraud, obtaining property under color of official right and making false statements to a financial institution in loan applications. The indictment alleges that the McDonnells conspired to “legitimize, promote, and obtain research studies” for Star Scientific products.” Frankly, that seems a tad weak and reminds me of the case against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. In the latter’s successful prosecution, I never saw the clear crime in the form of an actual selling of the Illinois Senate seat vacated by President Obama.

The indictment details acts that are common among politicians like attending Star company parties and allowing the Mansion to be used for a launch party. He is also accused facilitating meetings with state officials. None of that is good from an ethics or a judgment perspective, but the threshold for a crime is generally set a bit higher in my view. The most conventional claims (as least for Washington) are the coverup allegations. Those are the charges that swept the former first lady into the indictment. The government accuses her of lying to investigators and misrepresenting the source of luxury clothes. In Washington such charges are common place in scandals, often resulting in charges under 18 U.S.C. 1001 for any false statement given to investigators. Those are the charges that I would be most concerned with as a defense attorney. Even when you knock down the corruption charges on the elements of the offense, a jury can find an easy compromise verdict in these false statement allegations.

McDonnell, while expressing regret for accepting the gifts, insisted that “I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal generosity and friendship. I never promised—and Mr. Williams and his company never received—any government benefit of any kind from me or my administration.”

Despite the disgust that I feel in reading some of these emails and records of purchases, I still find the official acts in return for the gifts to be fairly weak. That link might be strengthened at trial and a jury is certainly not going to like the shopping trips to New York. However, after years of investigation, I expected a stronger nexus between the gifts and actual use of McDonnell’s office.

46 thoughts on “Former Virginia Governor McDonnell Indicted With Wife For Corruption”

  1. As far as the pro quo part, Rachel Madow certainly made it sound like there was enough there to warrant charges. This was from last night. Sorry, I don’t have a link.

  2. Lessons of the Bob McDonnell Scandal
    Wealthy donors are never your friends, and living within your means is only a rule for chumps.
    By Dahlia Lithwick
    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/01/bob_mcdonnell_scandal_what_we_can_learn_from_the_alleged_ethical_lapses.html

    Excerpt:
    It’s counterintuitive, but maybe there is something about the heady charms of fast cars and couture gowns that makes them seem, by definition, ethical. Or more precisely, perhaps there is some sense that with that first rush of power and glamor, the very absence of all the lovely perks is, well, somehow unethical. “We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!” Maureen McDonnell lashed out in an email to an aide to the then-governor-elect in December 2009. The aide had suggested it would be inappropriate for her to allow Williams to buy her an inaugural gown. “I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done,” she pleaded, because when you believe yourself entitled to absolutely everything, it’s easy to justify everything you need to do to get it.

    Perhaps another lesson is that fiscal conservatism is a myth for many who spout it most vociferously. The man who campaigned on fiscal-minded sobriety, largely charmed the commonwealth with his soft-spoken political style, and achieved hugely popular reforms on kitchen-table issues—including mass-transit reform, pension reform, and education—was fundamentally incapable of walking the walk when it came to his own life: He successfully governed like a sober fiscal conservative while he opted to live like he was Lord Grantham. Apparently the bare minimum one can manage, while still keeping up appearances these days, includes a pair of Virginia Beach houses, bought for $2 million in 2005 and 2006, a $1 million home at the Wintergreen resort, and an $835,000 home outside Richmond. Minimum. The gaping disparity between the sober, fiscally cautious stated GOP values by which he campaigned, and the McDonnell’s profligate lifestyle is a tacit endorsement of the notion that living within your means is only a rule for chumps.

    Ultimately, it’s always useful to recall that the McDonnells are still innocent unless and until they are proven otherwise, and that Virginia politicians have been getting away with similarly grotesque ethical conduct for a long time; McDonnell is just the first who may serve jail time for it. But in an era of deeply polarized politics, broken government, and elected officials who are bought and sold for much more than McDonnell is accused of accepting (and happy birthday to you, Citizens United), one last important lesson might be offered up from the McDonnell tragedy: Bob McDonnell was a hugely effective governor in a riven state. While the rest of the nation struggled, he presided over a statewide expansion in prosperity and opportunity. Sworn in as a rabid social conservative, McDonnell gradually modulated his most extreme views (and the often radical views of his attorney general) on issues ranging from gay rights to transvaginal ultrasounds, and disappointed critics on the right with his transportation initiative and his committed efforts to restore civil rights to ex-felons. His new budget offers additional funding for mental-health care, higher education funding, and more money for K–12 and Pre-K education. Forbes named Virginia the best state in the U.S. for business in 2013 and McDonnell presided over two consecutive years of a budget surplus. Even when some initiatives—money funneled to charter schools—looked to simply be all about chasing the money, the fact is that homelessness is down 16 percent in the commonwealth, more than 170,000 new jobs have been created, and McDonnell oversaw significant adoption reform. McDonnell reportedly worked 14-hour days. He evinced none of the deranged ideological zealotry of a Rick Perry, none of the thuggery of a Chris Christie, and none of the gratuitous cruelty of a Scott Walker.

    That a fundamentally temperate, deeply religious, family-oriented pragmatist and former military man could have been so completely and mindlessly swept up by the Gatsby-dreams of the 1 percent may prove to be the ultimate tragedy here. In a world of government by the Mitt Romneys, of the Mitt Romneys, and for the Mitt Romneys, Bob McDonnell actually wasn’t ever a Mitt Romney. His downfall lay in trying to become one. Maybe in the world of politics, there is no other way to be.

    1. Elaine M. – As the social democrats dominate the Town of Palm Beach, FL in plurality; one of the richest single cities in America, many are guiding people with poetic ratfcuting, rather than the truth; an art form that many have utilized throughout our great nations history. The words both define everything we loath about politics and those who defend either of our two party system. Each criticizing the other for the voluminous usurpations of individual rights and abrogations of our Constitution that each party has contributed to our society. Each compromising the rights of our Citizens to the benefit of special interests and the political system itself.

      Politics is perhaps the problem, thinking that somehow we can elect those to rule over us, rather than just protecting the rights of mankind by providing the justice we deserve.

  3. Mark:

    I understand your points and that it might be somewhat of a bright line to prove quid-pro-quo of the alleged bribe to obtain official actions favorable to the person making the bribe. It is hardly a case where a bribery statute can be evaded simply by omitting words such as “give me a thousand dollars and I will throw the election for you.” and instead doing things such as “You are my friend and I take care of my friends, I sure could use $1,000.00”. One has to look at the end game and original intent. One party wanted undue influence and provided the other party with illegal consideration to obtain it. Hard to prove? Perhaps from a strict legal point to conform to elements of a crime it might be and as you point out it really is all that matters with regard to a criminal complaint.

    This issue is similar to an arrest I had that went up the the WA Supreme Court. Essentially during an arrest I made of a defendant he made threats to harm me and my family while I drove this guy to jail. I charged the defendant with felony intimidating a public servant. The defendant filed a Knapstead Motion to dismiss. He argued that while the threats definately could constitute harassment (a lesser crime) there was not a nexus to show the threats were to influence the officer’s decision to release him from custody or take other action in order to allay the defendant’s threats (which was an element of the crime at that time). The superior court judge dismissed the Intimidating a Public Servant charge. The prosecutor appealed and Division III of the Court of Appeals reversed the superior court judge essentially saying it was implied that the threat was made as a punishment to the officer for arresting him and that it was contemporaneous and as a result of the arrest. The defendant appealed to the state supreme court and essentially ruled as the superior judge had.

    I do see a similarity here with the case against the governor in that proving the nexus is going to be necessary to fit the statutory requirements and elements. (and the case law)

    I recognize politicians give favors to friends and associates, either directly or unconsciously but in this case I see the loan more significantly. Forgivable loans have been given to members of boards of directors for years as a form of compensation. There were many times where especially the first lady solicited the CEO to provide her with loans and gifts through inferrence such as making statements she was nearly broke or needed a dress for the inaguration and items for the children. And those items were provided to her by the CEO. And the CEO’s employer receives favorable placement for the company in meetings, promotions etc. Had there not been these expensive gifts and loans would there have been this level of accomodation. That is something the prosecution might need to establish. But I have to wonder why would the first lady evade so stridently the investment reporting requirements for the ownership fo the health care company stock if she did not suspect some form of reprecussion would be had if it was discovered she did in fact own it. She wouldn’t have been at all worried, I suspect, if she had stock in Microsoft or Ford, but there was this relationship between the CEO she wished to hide from the public and the public disclosure agency and to me combined with all else in the prosecutions allegations tends to steer me to believe there was a quid-pro-quo even if at best indirectly conveyed by the two parties.

    Also he might have been a great governor otherwise but how great can a person be where violations of the law and ethics become increasingly less important as the praise increases.

    I would think if this went to trial, a bench trial would be better for the defendants.

  4. Bron, You should see the wedding photos. The wedding was in my paternal grandparents back yard. It was 9/2/50 and @ that point in US culture, Italians and Irish just did not marry. I’m sure Mr. Turley’s folks have stories. There was some tension but EVERYONE in Bristol knew both families. My father’s family because of their restaurant biz and the Scott family just because there were so many[13 kids] and they were “colorful.” They liked to drink, box and dance. So, within the immediate family, there was no tension. All of my mom’s brothers really liked my old man. They knew him since grade school. But, when you got to the aunts, uncles, etc. you can see the tension..until the wine and whiskey flowed.

    My town was a real melting pot when I grew up, Bron. Bristol had just about every ethnicity and in the 50’s and 60’s the barriers that separated were crumbling. A guy I played baseball and football against, Vito Hernandez, was Italian and Puerto Rican. We were friends..still are. Vito is the infamous Aaron Hernandez, uncle. Aaron’s dad was a lot younger than Vito so he was just the little kid running around. When I was home in Bristol for a funeral a few years back I ran into Vito @ a local breakfast spot. We hadn’t seen each other in years. Aaron was @ Florida and having some problems. I have family who went to school w/ Aaron and word travels fast. Vito told me Aaron’s dad died when Aaron was in high school and that it was a real blow to the kid. I think Aaron was a Jr. Dad went in for routine surgery[hernia I think] and died from complications. So, the stuff Aaron is involved w/ is not shocking to me. Vito tried to pick up for his brother but it’s tough when a kid is a thousand miles away. Every time I read something on the case my heart bleeds for Vito. I’ve not spoken w/ him since the arrest.

    Maybe the mix is what makes me controversial, Bron. When you grow up in that environment you learn to be straight and blunt about stuff. We were blue collar, mixed ethnic kids. We are who we are.

  5. Bron:

    That’s McDonnell’s argument and it makes some sense. i will note that special appointed state prosecutor Mike Herring (not the new AG Mark Herring) did say he wasn’t pursuing charges because of the federal indictment but he wouldn’t elaborate on just what those charges might have been.

  6. nick:

    Irish and Italian? How do you manage? You dont know when to fight and when to make love.

    Maybe that is why you are such a controversial figure? 🙂

  7. Mespo:

    If this is true, then it is a federal government over reach which is not good.

    “3. Bob McDonnell was the Governor of Virginia, elected by people of Virginia, exercising authority granted to him by the Constitution and laws of Virginia. And the conduct Bob McDonnell is accused of was entirely legal under Virginia law. For years, the Virginia General Assembly has determined that, without an express quid pro quo, no gift in any amount can corrupt or appear to corrupt a public official. Now, however, the Department of Justice apparently regards Virginia’s law as insufficient to protect the people of Virginia from the man they elected to lead them, so it’s indicting Bob McDonnell under federal law. In so doing, DOJ is substituting its policy preferences for will of the people of Virginia’s elected representatives – charging Bob McDonnell federally for legal state conduct.”

    Virginians can take care of their own business, we dont need a jack a$$ like Eric Holder helping us. He has a bigger fish that needs frying.

  8. Juris:

    “Aren’t you conflating guilt and sentencing?”

    ***********************

    I was talking about the charging decision in the first place. Not every crime is charged and the prosecutor normally looks at all factors in his/her decision making. I noticed that no state charges were brought by Mike Herring.

  9. Mespo:

    If he was broke, maybe he should have waited to run for office.

    The article below says to pay politicians more so that the temptation will be less. But an unethical person will be unethical at any amount of money. Look at Harry Truman, he went in broke and came out broke. We dont expect enough of our politicians to pay them a million per year.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/bob-mcdonnell-is-underpaid-2013-7

    As it is, the governor of Virginia is paid $175,000 per year. If he cant keep up with the Jonses, maybe he needs friends who are middle class.

    He also could have waited until after he was out of office to start selling his influence. He is a stupid man to have sold himself for the amount he received or for any amount.

    So much for another family values republican, I read his law school paper and I cant say I am sorry to see him out of politics.

  10. Mespo:

    “Maybe so, but I think it’s more about the degree of punishment required to deter this type of sleaze. It’s a big hit to be the first governor in the history of the Commonwealth to be indicted much less convicted. Especially so for someone with –at one time – a bright political future.”

    Aren’t you conflating guilt and sentencing?

    Should whether he was the first governor to be indicted or someone with a bright political future be considered in whether to prosecute? I think not.

  11. Maybe, Juris, but as an intellectual concept they are different things. Certainly a violation of s/f criminal law makes something a crime but the reason for the distinction was what I was trying to get at in my comment.

  12. Mespo:

    “You’re conflating professional ethics and criminal conduct.”

    Maybe the concepts should be conflated in this context. I am not certain they are always mutually exclusive or distinct concepts. To use your reference to lawyers as an example – not properly accounting for client property can be both an ethics violation and criminal conduct, can it not?

    Isn’t a better definition of criminal conduct “a violation of a state or federal criminal law”?

    Nonetheless, my point was that the bar for criminal conduct should be lowered to better discourage certain of the types of conduct the Governor (or the CEO) engaged in.

  13. Darren:

    This type of state promoting behavior goes on all the time and the indictment itself accepts it as part of the governor’s job. The issue of favoritism is always present and I can assure you there is never any perfect equality of promotion. People are people and friends get treated better — so what else is new. The point is that bribery as alleged requires a quid-pro-quo that is fairly concrete — not this nebulous “received benefits” kind of stuff. A loan is not a bribe. Getting gifts for family members is not per se illegal in Virginia nor is the receipt of which the subject of public disclosure requirements under existing law. It looks bad I grant you and it may disqualify you from office but I don’t see criminality here with the possible exception of false loan application information. The obstruction of justice against his wife stuff is all smoke IMHO.

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