Corruption and Cronyism in the Old Dominion

Posted: Aug 06, 2014 12:01 AM

The first week of the McDonnell corruption trial has concluded, and if the testimony thus far is any indication, things aren't looking good for the defendants. Regardless of the ultimate guilt of innocence of the Governor and his wife, the facts of the case reveal the unsavory influence that power and celebrity can have on individuals and families and of the insidious relationship between money and power in the world of politics.

A former legislator turned Attorney General, Bob McDonnell's sights always seemed set on higher office. A major factor in Bob and Maureen McDonald's rise to national prominence was their iconic image as the classic American family. Five beautiful children, a seemingly happy marriage, traditional family values, a legacy of military service, character, ethics, morals. . . this projection of the American Dream was a cornerstone of McDonnell's campaign for governor of Virginia, and the formula worked. Not only did McDonnell win the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, he was talked about as a possible VP candidate for Mitt Romney's Presidential campaign.

Of course, not all that glitters is gold, and we are getting an unvarnished look at a less flattering side of the McDonnell family. From the LA Times:

"McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, are charged with public corruption. Federal prosecutors allege that the couple, financially strapped and eager to live the high life, aggressively solicited cash and gifts from the businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a local millionaire.

In return, prosecutors say, the couple provided state help promoting a nutritional supplement made out of tobacco. The McDonnells admit taking the gifts, but deny giving favors in return.

Williams is now the government's star witness, and to try to defuse his testimony, the defense kicked off the trial with a bombshell: The McDonnells' marriage had unraveled in the governor's mansion, defense lawyers told the jury in opening statements. That, they said, left Maureen McDonnell desperate for attention, and she got it from the jet-setting Williams, on whom she had a 'crush.'

[A]t the center of the scandal is a purported wonder drug – a nutritional supplement Williams says he invented from tobacco, which he told the jury he learned to make less dangerous with his microwave.

Williams testified that he was willing to supply gifts in return for help getting Virginia's public medical schools to embrace his product, as well as getting the governor to promote it.

The supplement was launched, with much fanfare, at an event at the governor's mansion. The state's first lady traveled the country with Williams, promoting the product at events with groups of doctors and potential investors.

The defense argues that none of that was caused by Williams' gifts. Indeed, they say, the governor was largely unaware of the money and presents Williams had given his wife.

That could be a hard argument for jurors to accept. Evidence shows Williams gave a $50,000 loan to the McDonnells, paid $15,000 for catering at the wedding of one of their daughters, took Maureen McDonnell on a $19,000 shopping spree at Oscar de la Renta and Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan and bought the governor an engraved $6,500 Rolex at a jewelry shop in Malibu.

On Friday the government showed the jury a photo of the governor wearing the Rolex. McDonnell has said he thought the watch was a gift from his wife, not Williams. But this photo was one texted from the governor's phone to Williams. It shows McDonnell flashing what appears to be the watch while smiling a broad grin."

It's like a script from a prime time soap opera: A handsome, successful, ambitious husband who neglects his wife, who in turn uses her position and influence to solicit attention from a villainous character with his own ulterior motives. Alleged domestic problems aside, it is clear that the power and prestige of the Governor's office did not satisfy McDonnell and his First Lady. They wanted money . . . or at least the things that only lots of money can buy, and Jonnie Williams was more than happy to provide it in exchange for special access and influence.

Bob McDonnell's future rests on whether or not the defense can prove that it was his wife, and not he, that knowingly traded access for assets. If not, then it's likely he'll be trading that Rolex and Ferrari for prison stripes.

This story is rocking the Old Dominion because Virginia is not a state known for a culture of corruption. The McDonnell scandal, however, is nothing unique. Human politics have been infected with corruption of one kind or another since the beginning of time. If you want to play, you have to pay. The only thing we can do is to prosecute this kind of corruption aggressively whenever and wherever we find it, and send a clear message to our elected officials and other prominent leaders in our community that we expect better.