The McDonnell Saga Is Far From Over

maureen mcdonnell sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

Former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell has been sentenced to 12 months and a day in federal prison, but the GiftGate saga is far from over.

She will appeal as has her husband, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who was sentenced to two years in prison last month. The now estranged couple was convicted of public corruption felonies, making McDonnell the only Virginia governor, past or present, to be convicted of a crime.

The next step is for the former governor’s appeals to be heard at the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. The issue is whether so-called “honest services fraud” for which both were convicted, should be interpreted broadly or narrowly.

During their trial, U.S. District Judge James Spencer took the broad approach, instructing the jury that there did not have to be a very strict “quid pro quo” for them to return a guilty verdict. He reiterated his stand on Friday by overruling a slew of motions from the defense relating to the issue.

The appeals could have far-reaching consequences, as I reported with a colleague on Bloomberg News this week. Charles James, a former federal prosecutor who works at the Williams Mullen law firm in Richmond, says the case “could be the next case to further restrict the use” of the honest-services fraud statute.

If the Robert McDonnell’s appeal is successful, then it would have a big impact on his wife, as well as loosen the interpretation nationally of how far “honest services” should go.

If the government is successful, then expect a crackdown on public official hankie-pankie.

At Friday’s sentencing, eight character witnesses described Ms. McDonnell, 60, as an empathetic, self-sacrificing woman who would do anything for her children and husband.

That image stands in marked contrast to the image defense lawyers for her husband painted during the trial. Incredibly, her own lawyers piled on with the idea that Maureen McDonnell was a naïve but abusive woman who hated being First Lady. She was so frustrated with her husband ignoring her for his political career that she got entangled with Jonnie (the serpent) Williams, who ran Star Scientific, a Henrico company that made and marketed vitamin supplements.

Williams gave the financially strapped McDonnells about $177,000 in gifts, loans and trips while the McDonnells set up meetings with state officials to the products of his money-losing firm. Ironically, the main product was Anatabloc, a skin cream, which has since been ordered off the market the Food and Drug Administration.

At the top of this blog, you see a teaser story that the convictions were corrupted by Williams’ dubious integrity. That’s nonsense, of course. Prosecutors use inside testimony, especially in organized crime and drug cases, all the time.

The bigger issue is whether “honest services” means bribery or whether it is a normal part of setting up appointments by public officials to consider projects that might benefit their city, state or country. This will be the key issue in the appeals.

Meanwhile, the soap opera has been weirdly painful, fascinating and entertaining. It’s also been rather crass. The former governor tries to come off like a Boy Scout yet refused a chance to cop a plea in exchange for Maureen not being indicted at all. She was not a public official, but non-public officials have been convicted in the past of honest services fraud.

Both defense teams made Maureen the scapegoat. She was portrayed as a greedy and unstable hustler who brought her husband down.

Before delivering the sentence to Maureen, who gave a tearful, first-time statement asking for mercy, Spencer made bitingly critical remarks of the defense lawyers. “The ‘Let’s throw Momma under the bus’ defense morphed into the ‘Let’s throw Momma off the train defense,’” he said. Ms. McDonnell seemed to be two very different people and Spencer had trouble figuring it out.

Her lawyers had asked for no prison time and 4,000 hours of community service. Federal guidelines could have given her more than six years but prosecutors asked for only 18 months in prison.

Spencer split the difference, mostly because he gave Mr. McDonnell a light sentence. He was more culpable since he was a public official, not to mention a former state prosecutor and the state attorney general.

He cut Maureen some slack, too. By sentencing her that extra day, he gave her the opportunity to get out in only 10 months for good behavior since that’s the rule under federal prison guidelines.

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7 responses to “The McDonnell Saga Is Far From Over

  1. They both may well get off which I’m sure will be viewed different ways depending on one’s politics and perhaps other criteria.

    For me – it demonstrates just how bad Virginia’s ethics laws are – and even then people have trouble with the boundaries – a sad commentary.

    We have people in the General Assembly who refuse to say where they work when not at the GA – and they refuse to – and their explanation is that the law does not require them to.

    DonR makes a deal about the fact they are a part-time legislature – both incompetent and corrupt.

    I’m not that harsh – at least no for every single one of the GA – but there’s enough of the less-than-wonderful types slithering around that the entire culture of the place just reeks at times.. like when Dominion comes sashaying in and the bowing and scraping ensues.

    I guess I could think of some other states just as bad or worse .. but suffice to say – McDonnell and wife were “comfortable” with what they thought was a normal way of doing business and were just fine pushing the boundaries … and no I’ll never buy that poor old Bob had no clue what Maureen was up to and just fell off the turnip truck into the den of iniquity. The man was a legislator, he was AG, He worked for and with a Congressman that was convicted of corruption and went to jail. Clueless does not “fit” the man.

    the moment he made personal contact with Mr. Williams – knowing what he did already – tells me all I need to know. Even the most crooked of politicians KNOWS who NOT to meet with, to be seen with, to have phone calls and emails with – and has their underlings do it!

    The only thing I come away with, conviction or not, is just how low esteem McDonnell apparently had for the office of Governor and a more horrible thought – that he may well have been justified in his thinking.

    All of this – because they screwed their Chef on a catering and told him to take food and stuff from the kitchen instead then ran and hid when the Chef got caught.

    this is not the way that people who live in the GOvernors office should act.

    This is how white trash lives – in my book. These are the folks that leave a hotel with towels and silver and whatever else is not bolted down.

    And they have 5 of their offspring – that were taught the same.

    have I said enough?

    good. I’ll shut up now.

    • Completely agree with you — the only reason the “honest services” appeal has legs is, so many politicians do as the first fam. did that there’s a real question whether any voter has a reasonable expectation of receiving honest services.

  2. Shortly after being elected Tim Kaine accepted a vacation to a private island from Albemerle County investor James B Murray, Jr. Prior to the vacation on Mustique Murray contributed $41,000 to Kaine’s campaign. Later in his term Kaine reappointed Murray to the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Appointments.

    If McDonnell is guilty of honest services fraud for accepting gifts from Jonnie Williams and then trying to introduce Williams to state officials why isn’t Kaine guilty of honest services fraud for accepting a vacation to a private island and then reappointing the gift-giver to a prestigious state position?

    Despite being famously wealthy former Governor Mark Warner accepted over $190,000 in gifts during his term as governor. Included in these gifts were $495 bottles of wine, a handmade dulcimer, etc.

    I find it hard to see McDonnell’s crime as being the poor personal integrity of the person who gave him the gifts. Who is to say that the people who gave Kaine and Warner hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts are any better?

    It seems arbitrary and capricious to prosecute McDonnell for doing something that seems no worse than what prior Virginia Governors (and sitting US Senators) did.

    If the McDonnells are going to jail then maybe it’s time to get Kaine and Warner in front of a judge and jury. I suspect that Judge Spencer’s jury instructions for McDonnell would have been sufficient to see both Kaine and Warner convicted as well.

    Virginia should have state laws that ban gift giving to elected officials. We should also join the 46 other states that put some limits on campaign contributions as well. However, until that happens prosecuting one governor for honest services fraud while other former governors go unchallenged for similar behavior seems unfair to me.

    • what’s the difference?

      well first thing – you don’t tell your Chef to steal food from the Gov Mansion, then when he gets caught – claim you never told him to do it.

      If you’re gonna be a crooked politician – at least have the decency to do it in a high-minded way so folks don’t think you’re acting like some common criminal.

      second – if you know you’ve been bad and you’re offered a plea deal for a minor offense – keep your testosterone under control and don’t be stupid.

      Third – when you’re directly communicating with a shyster who’s been also dealing with your wife -don’t get up on the stand and be a weasel to the woman who gave you five kids.

      maybe Kaine and Warner were as big as crooks and idiots as McDonnell but you know – the other side had lots of lots of opportunity to derail each of their bids for Senator and it did not happen, in part because neither seem to have the crude instincts of a petty thief or be dumb enough to make a deal with a petty thief to pilfer your own kitchen then lie that you did not.

      • Maureen’s lawyers were fully behind the “blame Maureen” strategy. Although it didn’t work it might have been a good approach – blame the person who was never elected. I see no problem with using whatever strategy has the best chance of success.

        The real issue is judge Spencer’s instructions to the jury. He used a very broad definition of “official acts”. Several of the jurors said they had no choice other than to find the McDonnells guilty after receiving the judges instructions. The question is whether Warner and Kaine would have been found guilty of honest services fraus if they were tried by a jury given the same instructions that Spencer gave the McDonnell jury.

        The McDonnells certainly took bad behavior to a new level. But if I get caught driving 66 mph in a 55 mph zone and you get caught going 70 in a 55 zone – we’re both guilty of speeding.

        • I’m not in disagreement with the fundamental premise about the honest services fraud but I think the key issue is – were the gifts disclosed?

          If they were not – there was perceived intent – quid pro quo whereas even if Kaine or Warner did a similar gift type quid-pro-quo transaction – but disclosed it then they were following the law as written. That’s a commentary on the Va law.

          and further – this was not one act – it was a longer-term, ongoing relationship of more than one single act … of perceived quid-pro-quo.

          If you were a politician and you had a continuing gift type relationship with a known mobster – that’s different than one slimy but perfect legal act..

          of which you could honestly ascribe to most every politician in the US from the POTUS on down.

          somewhere -you got to get off that train to hell – DonR…

        • I think the way that McDonnell and wife conducted themselves in the Gov office was below the standards of even the slimiest of politicians.

          And neither of them were nimrods who just blundered their way into falling off the turnip truck.

          their behaviors were purposeful – with intent – to “game” the ethics laws in Va.

          that’s essentially their defense – that you can’t really convict them because the family , not the Gov, were the ones receiving the gifts.

          I have to tell you – that if Warner or Kaine (or any Va Gov) is found out to be receiving gifts via their relatives – I’d have the very same disgusting view of them – as people.

          Finally – telling the Chef to steal food from the kitchen in payment for him catering their Daughters event – OUGHT to be a valid chargeable offense – IN VIRGINIA – so where are the charges?

          The actions of the Gov, his wife, their family, and the Va AG are – literally criminal… on the Chef incident yet you blather on about honest services fraud as if they were not guilty of anything Kaine and Warner were not also.

          they were disgustingly guilty of criminal and ethics violations… but maybe not the honest services fraud.

          it’s sorta of like getting Al Capone on tax evasion.

          and they’ll likely get off… but that won’t really change what slimeballs they are.

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