Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell indicted for corruption

One of the major factors in the recent Virginia governor’s race was the inability of Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli to count on assistance from the current governor, who was successful and widely admired for his bipartisan appeal.  That’s because said governor, Bob McDonnell, exited office in the midst of a corruption scandal that exploded into remarkable 14 counts in a federal indictment handed down on Tuesday.

For what it’s worth, McDonnell claims he’s being over-charged, and some observers agree with him; if he got the maximum penalty for everything he’s been charged with, he’d pay seven figures in fines, and spend several centuries in jail.  According to the tally published by the Associated Press, the indictment includes “one count of conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud; three counts of honest-services wire fraud; one count of conspiracy to obtain property under color of official right; six counts of obtaining property under color of official right; and one count of making false statements to a federal credit union.”

That makes twelve; the last two counts are for making a false statement to a financial institution, and the ex-governor’s wife Maureen is charged with obstructing an official proceeding.  The Washington Post describes them in detail:

They also said the couple took significant steps to hide the relationship. They accuse the former first lady of lying to investigators about how and when her husband had met Williams and of trying to pass off luxury clothes he purchased for her as a loan from his daughter.

The former governor, they said, illegally failed to disclose to banks the loans he had received from Williams as he sought to refinance several home loans.

McDonnell also denies that any of the behavior documented in his indictment was actually illegal, vowing that he would “prevail against these false allegations and the unjust overreach of the federal government.”  Those inclined to defend McDonnell have suggested that applying these corruption standards against other politicians would clean most of them out of office, which… well, let’s stop looking for silver linings and focus on the grim matter at hand.

The indictment tells a classic tale of big-money interests using gifts to gain a politician’s favor.  McDonnell says the supporter in question, Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, was merely a very generous personal friend.  There’s a great deal of solid, and sordid, evidence in the indictment that the McDonnells aggressively sought gifts and financial assistance from Williams, who in turn expected certain favors from the Governor to assist his business venture.  Actually, most of the demands for favors seemed to originate with Maureen McDonnell.  Some of them were rather shrill in tone.  One can imagine Williams rolling his eyes when he saw emails from her piling up in his in-box.

The Associated Press has a good capsule summary of the indictment:

Bob McDonnell had just been elected governor of Virginia when a wealthy businessman who had donated the use of his private jet during the Republican’s campaign requested a meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.

The governor-elect obliged and brought along his wife, Maureen, who during the meeting told Jonnie Williams she needed a dress for the inauguration the following month, according to a federal indictment of the McDonnells.

Williams agreed to buy her an Oscar de la Renta gown, but a Bob McDonnell aide said it would be inappropriate and nixed the idea, according to the indictment returned by a grand jury Tuesday.

Peeved, the former Washington Redskins cheerleader and future first lady fired off an email to the staffer.

“I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget,” the email said. “I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke and 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 ultimately told Williams, then the CEO of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific Inc., she could not accept the dress but would take a “rain check.”

That scenario played out in December 2009, according to the indictment, and was allegedly the start of a four-year pattern of Virginia’s first couple squeezing gifts and loans out of a benefactor who expected them to promote his company’s products in return.

According to these allegations, the squeezing grew rather intense:

The indictment suggests the McDonnells cashed in that first rain check many times over: shopping sprees for designer clothes for Maureen McDonnell, a vacation stay at Williams’ multimillion-dollar Smith Mountain Lake retreat, $70,000 in loans for a family real estate venture, $15,000 in catering expenses for a daughter’s wedding, golf outings for the governor and family members.

The day after the Smith Mountain Lake vacation, which allegedly included use of Williams’ Ferrari, Williams was in a meeting with the McDonnells and a senior state health official, pitching Star Scientific products and even suggesting that government employees could serve as a control group for research studies, according to the indictment.

Also that day, the indictment said, Maureen McDonnell persuaded Williams to buy a $6,500 Rolex watch that she presented to her husband as a gift with “71st Governor of Virginia” engraved on the back.

The government alleges there were other instances of the McDonnells using their influence to help Williams’ company, including hosting an Executive Mansion reception for Star Scientific to launch it signature product with university researchers in attendance.

The Washington Examiner has more details about each of these incidents, plus a copy of the full indictment.  The bit about asking for a Rolex engraved with “71st Governor of Virginia” is going to stick in many minds.  This is what the text of the indictment says about the incident:

On or about August 1, 2011, Maureen McDonnell also met privately with JW [Jonnie Williams].  During the meeting, Maureen McDonnell noticed JW’s watch and asked what brand it was.  JW informed her that it was a Rolex.  She informed JW that would like to get one for Robert McDonnell because he would like a Rolex.  JW expressed concern regarding whether Robert McDonnell would actually wear such a luxury watch given his role as a senior government official.  Maureen McDonnell told JW that she wanted JW to buy a Rolex for Robert McDonnell.  JW subsequently bought a Rolex for Robert McDonnell.  When JW contacted Maureen McDonnell to ask her what she wanted engraved on the watch, Maureen McDonnell instructed JW to have “71st Governor of Virginia” engraved on the back of the Rolex.

Looking back, I’m sure everyone will agree that JW’s concerns about the luxury watch were well-founded.  One of the big problems that will haunt the McDonnells throughout this trial is the number of documented instances where they specifically requested what might otherwise be considered generous gifts from a friend, such as $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding… and airplane tickets for her bachelorette party.  Some of this documentation relies upon disputable testimony, but there are paper trails included in the indictment that may prove hard to argue with.

There are many cases of the McDonnells declaring their extreme financial hardship and asking for assistance, which doesn’t sit well with the high-rolling lifestyle they wanted to maintain, including some very expensive golf outings charged to Williams’ account at the club.  And there’s fairly compelling evidence of how McDonnell used the powers of his office to benefit Williams’ business in turn, primarily by putting in a good word for his health-care products with various state officials.  “Things went so far that at times, it seemed as if the governor of Virginia was a pitchman in a diet supplement infomercial,” writes Byron York at the Examiner, citing a passage from the indictment in which Governor McDonnell pulled out a bottle of pills and began extolling their virtues during a meeting about the state employee health plan.

There will doubtless be much media discussion about how tawdry and lurid this all seems, whereas the normal level of corruption we’ve grown accustomed to in state and federal governments is usually justified with lots of soaring rhetoric about the good of The People, especially The Children.  Governor McDonnell’s defense that much of what he’s been charged with amounts to business-as-usual could also serve as the keynote speech at a Tea Party rally.  That’s the problem with mega-government that controls the fate of industries and reaches into everyone’s lives.  Even relatively minor favors from high officials are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to aggressive businessmen, never mind the billion-dollar subsidies politicians like Barack Obama are fond of shoveling out.

Power and influence are valuable resources.  They will be sold, one way or the other.  There are subtle, graceful, almost undetectable ways to make the sale, especially if the politician waits until he leaves office to cash in.  “Everybody does it” may not prove to be an effective defense for Bob McDonnell, but it makes for a hell of an indictment against the system.