By Peter Galuszka
It was an odd scene. The first floor security point at Richmond’s federal court was filled with spiffy, middle aged blonde women all chattering loudly as the grandfatherly guards tried to herd them through. Some had so much bling, they had to go through the metal detector three times after removing yet another trinket or belt or watch or bit of jewelry. Normally, the line would be the usual mob of family, reporters, sketch artists and stray onlookers.
On the corridor outside the seventh floor trial room, it might have been cocktail hour at the Republican Governor’s Association. The same pack of blondes was there. Many had large handbags stuffed with big pillows for their day on the hard wooden seats. Hugs and kisses everywhere. One man was especially natty in a Navy blue blazer, open necked striped dress shirt and a year-round tan. Palm Beach, anyone?
A younger woman kept bumping into people amidst the din as we all waited to be let in the courtroom. She sported a thin Louis Vuitton handbag. Then it struck. This is Maureen McDonnell’s cheering section for closing arguments that lasted from morning until early evening on Friday. That designer name, along with Oscar de la Renta, seems to have been her favorites when she pushed businessman Jonnie Williams to take her on shopping sprees or send her things.
After the Virginia State Police called in for an interview in February 2013, she packed up the goodies and sent them back to Jonnie. In some cases, these were items she had received two years before. Suddenly Maureen wanted to give them to “charity” or to one of the Williams’ daughters.
And that — the curious timing of scores of seemingly unrelated events over a period of more than two years from 2010 to 2013 — is what the seven men and five women jury must decide this coming Tuesday.
The point isn’t the gaucheness of the designer label stuff. Ms. McDonnell wasn’t a public servant and normally could accept whatever she wanted from Williams or anyone else. If it were stock, her husband, the former governor, would have to report it on his annual Statement of Economic Impact form. One year, Ms. McDonnell sold her stock in Williams’ company Star Scientific before the reporting deadline only to repurchase it the next year. The conclusion seems obvious, but draw your own.
It’s these kinds of coincidences that really do add up, argued David Harbach, a deputy at the public integrity section of the U.S. Department of Justice, who set up a powerful case against the McDonnells by connecting the evidentiary dots. Jonnie meets with the couple, the inaugural dress comes up and is dismissed by the governor’s staff but Maureen gets a Williams spending spree in New York as a consolation prize.
Or take the Bob McDonnell. He’s setting up meetings for Williams to break free possible research on his product by top state schools just as he is mulling of terms for a $50,000 loan from Williams (his staff is kept in the dark about how much he is in hock to JW, a self-styled “Southern Boy”). The pattern seems rather obvious after five weeks of mucking through a swamp of often confusing evidence. An email comes in, a deal with Jonnie for something personal is struck, a check arrives, an email is sent, and a luncheon at the Executive Mansion or some other event featuring the Governor or the First Lady or both pushing Anatabloc, Williams’ anti-inflammatory nutraceutical, is scheduled.
“He wrapped himself up in the flag of the Commonwealth and stomped on it,” Harbach told the jury. “This is not how governors behave. Don’t stand on the coattails of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Don’t let them do this.”
For the jury to do just that, it will have to weigh a key point of law. This is how far the idea of “honest services” goes with the wire fraud counts. It basically means that it is a crime if public officials deny their honest services to their citizens by accepting bribes or become involved in a conflict of interest. Prosecutors argued there doesn’t have to be a clear quid pro quo, something defense attorneys William Burck and Henry Asbill hammered against for hours. Honest services fraud has been used to nail former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, former U.S. Congress (and top Navy pilot in Vietnam) Duke Cunningham and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The Supreme Court has moved to define more narrowly how “honest services” can be defined but it still is on the books. A crucial turn in the drama will come Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer gives his extensive instructions to the jury. His definition of “honest services” will be an important part of that. Meanwhile, if you demand a “smoking gun” (whatever that is supposed to mean), I suggest you get back to watching Perry Mason reruns.
The defense spent a lot of time bringing up the McDonnells’ troubled marriage and financial debt. This is sad, tough stuff to go through day after day. And it is easy for anyone to be drawn into pangs of sympathy for hyper-anxious, lonely Maureen or serious, well-meaning Bob, “Boy Scout of the Year,” according to one friendly witness.
Contrasting that, of course, is the greedy, scheming Maureen (a “nutbag,” according to a staffer) and a self-absorbed, double-dealing Bob who should have known what is right and wrong for a public official to do. Conversely, he also would know how to hide stuff on his disclosure forms. We tend to forget that he was state attorney general not that long ago.
The creepiest part of all of this is how slyly the defense has humiliated Maureen as part of the “throw her under the bus” strategy. Yet she is going along with it, as her husband of 38 years. In doing so, the McDonnells are doing an amazing thing. They are actually beating Jonnie Williams on the cynicism scale and even the prosecution says he’s a criminal. No doubt about it.
I agree with the prosecution that Bob is a phony. On the stand, he was by turns humble and scolding. He casts himself as a public servant so pure of heart that it was almost a joke to listen to. He was always “accepting responsibility.” But he was always blaming someone else. Maureen, of course. His former brother-in-law screwed up the books at the troubled beach houses. He didn’t report a few golf outings on Jonnie’s tab at the posh Kinloch club in Goochland County because his staff screwed it up.
“This is a sad case, “Michael Dry, a prosecutor, told the jury Friday. “It is sad for the McDonnell family and sad for the state of Virginia.”