Category Archives: Crime and corrections

A Confederacy of Cynics

But Maureen gave them back

But Maureen gave them back

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.”

The View from Federal Court’s Media Room

mcdonnell By Peter Galuszka

The media corps is just starting to amble into small room granted by the U.S. District Court, albeit with tight rules. No cell phone calls outside the cramped quarters in the hallways. No slouching in the corridor with your laptop on the floor hoping your cellphone hot spot still works.

If you violate the rules, guards under the supervision of U.S. District Judge James Spencer, you could have your electronics confiscated.

The fun part is that it’s a congenial group with several from the local newspaper, three from The Washington Post which broke the McDonnell story, one from the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, Politico and me, for Bloomberg News.

We sit for hours on hardwood seats waiting for breaks to file updates or stories. The television folks must go tot he sidewalks outside and they have been admonished by tough Judge Spencer not to block the doorways.

The witnesses are a study in contrast — the largest being former Gov. Bob McDonnell who seemed calm, collected, even charming under three days of defense direct questioning.

It was a different tune yesterday under cross by Asst. U.S. Atty. Mike Dry, who in a steady and deliberate manner foisted a metamorphosis of McDonnell that would have done Kafka proud. Gone was the likable, good-looking man who almost broke down when he was shown the lovesick email he wrote his wife to save his failing marriage.

McDonnell had turned clipped, angry and confrontational. The more crew-cut Dry hit home at the contradictions, the more McDonnell went to tart ?No” or “Yes” answers.

How could it be that you and Maureen were so strained in your relations that you barely spoke (and thus could hardly conspire) when you took 18 trips with her in a 22 month time frame, including Florida, Kiawah, Smith Mountain Lake and other places.

You say you are a “good personal friend” of Richmond philanthropist William Goodwin (who gave you the $23,000 Kiawah trip). Name his children. McDonnell couldn’t.

You say your finances are in order (and you had a financial “expert” show that rentals at Sunseeker down in Sandbridge and the other properties were on the mend. How is it then that about a dozen financial institutions turned you down for traditional refinancing and you had to go to personal sources like Jonnie Williams for a bailout?

And if you were upset that wife Maureen had taken a $50,000 loan from Williams without your knowledge, why did you wait more than a month to contact Williams to ask what was going on?

We’ll have to see how long Dry continues with his cross examination. Some say it might end today. His strategy is to draw out endless inconsistencies. We’ll see how it works with the jury.

Bob McDonnell’s Big Decision

 smith_mountain_lake2By Peter Galuszka

It was a gubernatorial quandary only Virginia could have .

In the summer of 2011, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was ready to take a few days off. He and his family had been going to Smith Mountain Lake, a popular destination near Roanoke with lots of golf courses and seven-figure lakeside homes.

At his corruption trial this week, McDonnell testified that his summer getaway had been bankrolled by Delta Star, a company with a big factory in Lynchburg that makes portable industrial electrical gear. The firm had put him up at one of their lakefront houses for $2,474 in 2010, according the VPAP, which runs a data base about this kind of thing.

Summer 2011 had proved a big problem, however. His wife, Maureen, had become fast friends with Jonnie R. Williams a rich Goochland County businessman. Williams had given Ms. McDonnell a $50,000 check and also paid $15,000 for her daughter’s wedding luncheon that June. She had traveled with Williams helping promote Anatabloc, Williams dietary supplement that has since been pulled off the market by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The problem was — whose million-dollar-plus house would the McDonnells use? Williams very much wanted the McDonnells to stay at his sprawling domicile on the tip of a peninsula. Delta Star wanted the McDonnells to stay at their place.

What to do? They split it. The McDonnells stayed at Williams’ house for a getaway valued at $2,268 value according to VPAP. He also laid on a Ferrari that the governor could enjoy driving on the way home.

Delta Star made sure the family was entertained and fed. They provided the family with their very own boat to cruise the lake and catered meals – a $1,892 value for a long weekend.

Delta Star’s feelings didn’t seem to be hurt since they laid on another entertainment gift worth $10,182 in 2012.

And while we’re talking lakeside homes, guess who else also stayed at Williams’ place? Former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, that’s who – to the tune of $3,000 in 2011. We haven’t heard much recently from the former firebrand, hard right politician but he is on the witness list.

And so it goes. And, by the way, getting vacation favors is very common. Check out former Gov. Tim Kaine’s expensive sojourn on the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.

It’s not the only way Virginia’s extremely lax ethics laws work.

If you use your PAC, you have an automatic teller machine. For instance, Tim Hugo of Fairfax, the third-ranking Republican in Virginia’s House of Delegates, expensed nearly $30,000 for travel and food and $9,400 for his cellphone over an 18-month period. As a spokeswoman for the State Board of Elections told The Washington Post’s Laura Vozzella in 2013, “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.”

Bringing out the Knives

An Afghan pesh-kabz

An Afghan pesh-kabz

by James A. Bacon

There is a rising tide in the op-ed pages, TV commentary and blog commentary that former Governor Bob McDonnell is a brutish, swinish cad for portraying his wife Maureen as the heavy in the corruption trial. You’ve got to love liberals. They’re so very compassionate…  until they’re talking about their wounded enemies. Then, like the Afghan women in the Rudyard Kipling poem, “The Young British Soldier,” they scour the battlefield to “cut up what remains.”

If Maureen and Bob McDonnell had been Democrats instead of Republicans, we would be treated to a litany of perspectives on the heavy toll of political life upon the marriages of elected officials, the unambiguous signs that Maureen was suffering from depression, and speculation from mental health experts to provide subtlety, nuance and context to the story.

No such compassion is accorded McDonnell, who now is being depicted as a man who “betrayed” his wife and was willing to “flay” her character in order to save himself, just to cite the observations of Petula Dvorak and her headline writer in the Washington Post. (Bacon’s Rebellion‘s very own Peter Galuszka is no kinder.)

Here’s the question I would pose to them. If you were in McDonnell’s shoes, and if the marriage were the shambles he says it was, and if Maureen was indeed the one who solicited the gifts and loans from former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, Sr., and if you truly believed yourself to be innocent of any illegality, what would you have done? Would you have, in Dvorak’s words, “manned up” and taken the plea agreement offered by prosecutors before the trial? How many people would admit to a crime they believed they did not commit?

Who really bears the moral onus here? McDonnell, for defending himself, or the prosecutors, who (a) proceeded with a case that’s looking flimsier by the day, and (b) called the witnesses whose testimony trashed Maureen’s reputation before McDonnell breathed a word?

McDonnell bears his share of blame for the failing marriage, as he seemed willing to concede on the witness stand yesterday. Maureen was happy living in Virginia Beach before he rose to statewide political prominence. He asked her to sacrifice a lot for his political career, giving up her cozy network of friends and her part-time job selling vitamin supplements. When he first moved to Richmond, the family lived apart while the kids finished high school. As attorney general and especially as governor, he traveled constantly and spent half his nights away from his wife and family. He insisted she use a small inheritance to pay down credit card bills. When Maureen expressed her increasing unhappiness by nagging and throwing tantrums, he withdrew from her, often spending extra time at the office. Emotionally exhausted from the confrontations, he did not question some of Maureen’s activities that he should have questioned — it was easier just to look the other way.

But McDonnells’ critics don’t mention any of these all-to-human failings that probably could describe thousands, even millions, of American men at some point in their marriages. Liberals bring out the long knives. They move in for the kill, portraying their weakened foes as morally reprehensible, as less than human.

In his poem, Kipling advised the wounded English soldier, “Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.” McDonnell did not roll over. Perhaps that was his worst affront of all.

Maureen McDonnell and Sexism

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

Sitting for hours listening to former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell testify in his federal corruption trial makes one wonder exactly what his values are, especially as they relate to women.

His entire legal strategy is to “Throw Maureen Under the Bus” – namely his lawyers and those of his co-defendant wife Maureen are portraying Ms. McDonnell as a “basket case” who set up a lot of funny meetings with snake oil salesman Jonnie Ray Williams Sr., accepted expensive gifts from him with promptly telling her husband, and communicated with him 1,200 times in about a year and a half (one day it was 52 text messages.)

She is bad and deceptive. He is good and didn’t know much about her messy friendship with Williams. She is guilty. He is innocent (or so it goes).

Gov. Bob, helmet hair perfect as usual, took the jurors through a horrible litany of his long-decaying marriage to college sweetheart Maureen. While she was screaming and intimidating her staff, he was slogging through “the business of governing” for endless hours every day.

When she approached Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate on the campaign trail in 2012 and offered the woman who suffers from MS some “Anatabloc,” Williams’ miracle pills, Bob overhead it and was “embarrassed.”

There is something deeply disturbing, however, about McDonnell and his attitudes. He seems to have come from a bygone era when men worked long hours, held major responsibilities and answered to the most important thing in their lives – their overweening ambition.

The husband was ordained by God to do great things, be a Boy Scout, and write his name in history books. His wife was to stay barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen knitting socks or selling silly vials of creams.

McDonnell has since disowned this little passage he wrote at Regent University (Pat Robertson’s school) back in 1989 when he was a graduate student, but it seems strangely relevant. He tried to create some kind of conservative, faith-based government paradigm that would cut taxes, open charter schools and the like. He wrote:

“Further expenditures would be used to subsidize a dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family by entrenching status-quo of nonparental primary nurture of children.” The kicker is his view that feminism is one of the “real enemies of the traditional family.”

Well, a hell of lot of good that thinking has done since he has steadily, deliberately humiliated his wife in a bid to avoid jail time. A parade of defense witnesses, mostly McDonnell cronies, have humiliated Ms. McDonnell as a grabby, irrational, fashion-mad bimbo who just didn’t get it when Bob patiently told her that the stock she held in Star Scientific, Williams’ firm, had lost half their value and were a bad investment.

There are other giveaways that paint McDonnell as a self-important, entitled, superior little prig. Maureen had an apparently successful home-based business selling nutraceuticals like face creams. The Bob that may have sounded so pointlessly “womanish” but it is a big business. When he ran for statewide offices, he told Maureen to nix the biz.

Now wait a minute. Why should he tell his wife that she can’t run her own business she built up because his mission as a conservative political savior is just too important? Why does he get to decide?

One reason has roots in a kind of mid- 20th century philosophy that one used to see in black and white movies and television shows. There has been a deluge of testimony about the Virginia suburbs of DC roots of the McDonnells. Lots of military, conservative, family values, do-goodism, ticket punching (making colonel or the appropriate GS level position) having some silly affection for the Redskins or golf club bags with your school logo and so on. But the most obnoxious attitude is that the self-pride that one is doing something very important for his country and fellow citizens.

If you are male, you get to wear this cloak. If you are a woman, your first and foremost goal is to mind the kids and support your man and be a handmaiden to HIS career and ambitions. Watch the 1950s “Strategic Air Command” film” with Jimmy Stewart as a ballplayer pilot and his dutiful wife June Allyson. He makes the big decisions and flies the big bombers. She’s always waiting at the air base fence for him to come home so she can cook him fried eggs.

But McDonnell has a bigger problem than just this over-the-top sense of duty. By his own testimony, McDonnell is seriously addicted to political ambition. It is his oxycodone. His heroin. He gets a real kick by planning the next stage (vice president? president?) Maureen is left by herself and her screaming fits. Bob just tunes her out and spends as much time traveling and in his office as he can.

As he testified, McDonnell got a buzz from being a state legate and an even bigger buzz by running for attorney general and governor. One woman who seemed to be cheering him every step of the way was Janet Kelly, who ended up being Secretary of the Commonwealth when he became governor. She testified that when he wanted her for that spot, she told him flat out she could not work with Maureen. She didn’t.

Family values, anyone?

McDonnell on the Stand

mcdonnellFormer Governor Bob McDonnell took the stand yesterday, defending his conduct in connection with Jonnie Williams Sr. and Star Scientific in precisely the way one would expect: Other than providing access to government, something that every governor does, he said, he did Williams no favors. As the Times-Dispatch summarized his testimony, “He never used discretionary funds at his disposal to give Star Scientific a grant, never paid a site visit to the company, and never held a news conference or issued a news release for the company.”

The fact that people are disgusted with the influence of money in politics is not an argument for convicting McDonnell. If McDonnell can be sent to jail for arranging meetings between Williams and state officials, then every living governor in Virginia had better start taking measurements for their orange prison jump suits. As for failing to disclose the real estate loans from Williams in loan applications to a bank and a credit union, the defense has made the case that he wasn’t required to — and the prosecution hasn’t presented a shred of evidence to suggest otherwise.

The only thing that can change the course of this trial is an aggressive cross-examination by the prosecution. If McDonnell comes across as contradictory or evasive, he could raise doubts that don’t exist now. But at this point, it does not appear that federal prosecutors have a case.

– JAB

Mo Maureen and Po’ Maureen

Mo McDonnell

Mo McDonnell

by James A. Bacon

More interesting testimony from the McDonnell trial yesterday. In the balance, the defense bolstered its case. But it was not entirely convincing.

The other Maureen. Mo McDonnell, Bob McDonnell’s little sister, was a successful business executive who had worked for IBM, Regent University and Amerigroup, culminating with a salary of $540,000 in 2012 and accumulating savings of more than $1 million. Mo testified that she had more than enough money to cover the cost of maintaining the troubled MoBo Real Estate Partnership, undercutting the prosecution’s argument that Bob borrowed money from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams out of desperation to keep the real estate partnership afloat. Indeed, when her bother decided to repay the loans to Williams, she was the one who fronted him the money to do so.

Although she could have covered any shortfall herself with a $150,000 payment she received when she left Amerigroup, she explained, she and Bob decided that interest rates were so low that it made more sense to borrow the money so she could invest her own funds at a higher rate of return.

Really? I’m not sure that passes the smell test. She is asking jurors to believe that it made more sense to borrow money from Jonnie Williams, even though Bob knew how it would look if the loan were made public and even though he had discussed with Williams (if we are to believe Williams) ways to avoid disclosure. Any reasonable person would conclude the exact opposite, that it made far more sense for Bob to borrow the money from his sister in a transaction that would have created no questions — as he ultimately did when he repaid Williams. If I were the prosecution, I would hammer that hard. It is not a convincing explanation. My hunch: There is more to the story, and we haven’t heard it yet.

Poor Maureen. Mo McDonnell and Kathleen Scott, a special assistant to the governor’s wife, provide new details on the first lady’s state of mind. The story of Po’ Maureen’s out-of-control behavior has been so consistent throughout the trail that there is little point in enumerating all the anecdotes here. But one round of testimony advances us to a new level of understanding.

Although McDonnell defended his wife to others, he acknowledged that she had a problem.  As Mo testified (as reported by the Virginian-Pilot):

The first lady once reduced her to tears with a biting comment during a weekend family gathering in 2012, McDonnell’s sister testified. She told her husband she wanted to leave.

“Bob came up and apologized and begged me to stay,” she said. “He said he was working on it. He was trying to get her help.”

As I have observed in previous posts, it is obvious that Po’ Maureen was suffering from depression, mood swings, hysterical outbursts and other signs of mental illness. This testimony confirms that while Bob coped by withdrawing and tuning her out, he also recognized she had a problem. I would not be surprised if testimony reveals that she sought psychiatric treatment and at some point took medication.  The McDonnells may not choose to release this information because they consider it private and shameful. They should not. Millions of Americans suffer from depression and related disorders. Suffering from depression is not a moral failing. (The behavior resulting from depression can be but the depression itself is not.)

Acknowledging Maureen’s mental illness would not excuse illegal or unethical conduct, especially on Bob’s part, but it would would put the McDonnells in a different light than the prosecution’s explanation, that Bob joined in a calculatingly immoral conspiracy with his wife to commit fraud. Also, the Maureen-the-depressed-wife seems less harsh and demeaning than the Maureen-the-bitch defense.

Throwing Maureen under the Bus

maureen_mcdonnellby James A. Bacon

The full dimensions of the McDonnell family tragedy came into clearer focus yesterday as attorneys representing Maureen and Bob McDonnell launched the defense phase of the corruption trial… by throwing Maureen under the bus. Defense witness Janet Kelly, Secretary of the Commonwealth in the McDonnell administration, described as “diva-ish” and so difficult with work under that her staff threatened to quit en mass.

Maureen’s behavior was so out of control that those in the governor’s inner circle wonder if she suffered from a mental illness. The picture painted by Kelly was of a woman who was isolated, miserable and unable to grow into the job. Kelly’s relationship with Maureen had deteriorated to the point she could not work with her even before Bob took office, but she did evince some sympathy for the first lady. Breaking down in tears at one point, she said she did not want to “pile on.” As the Washington Post summarized her testimony:

Maureen McDonnell repeatedly told her that being first lady was not something she had wanted. She was uncomfortable with public speaking and, in her first year in the mansion, lost both her parents and sent her youngest children to college — all while essentially losing her husband to his job.

“She would say, ‘I didn’t sign up for this. This isn’t what I wanted,’ ” Kelly testified. “It was a lot for her.”

Perhaps most germane to our understanding of the relationship between the former governor and his wife — defense attorneys said the marriage was in such bad shape that the two could not have conspired to swap gifts for favors with Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Wiliams Sr. — Kelly testified that the displays of affection in public between Bob and Maureen hid a deeper alienation. In private settings, she would rage at him.

Bacon’s bottom line: More pieces are falling into place. Bob McDonnell was an ambitious man. What he wanted out of life — political fame and success — wasn’t what Maureen wanted. Family finances were a mess before the family entered the governor’s mansion, made worse by extensive borrowing during the gubernatorial campaign. Maureen was ill equipped to fill the role of first lady; she didn’t ask for the job but she was stuck with it. Unable to handle the stress of the position on top of the deteriorating family finances, she flew into rages, alienated many of the people around her, including her husband, which made her situation even worse. She gravitated to Williams, who plied her with attention, gifts and what seemed to be friendship. (Kelly’s testimony supports my observation in a previous post that her behavior seemed indicative of clinical depression, a phenomenon that takes on a life of its own.) It’s a sad story, even a tragic one.

None of this excuses breaking the law (if laws are shown to be broken). None of it exonerates the McDonnells for showing terrible judgment by accepting gifts from Williams. Wrong is wrong, whatever the psychological explanation. But it does provide a context for understanding and interpreting what happened. And the picture we’re getting is of a vulnerable woman preyed upon by Williams to extract political favors from the administration.

The Prosecution Closes on a Weak Note

Bob McDonnell: Now it's time to hear his side of the story.

McDonnell: Ready to give his side of the story.

by James A. Bacon

The U.S. Justice Department closed its case in the McDonnell trial on a weak note Thursday as cross examination of FBI Agent David Hulser confounded the narrative prosecutors were trying to establish of a financially desperate first family.

Previous testimony had revealed the seemingly damning fact that Maureen and Bob McDonnell had accumulated $90,000 in credit card debt before entering the governor’s mansion. I blogged my personal shock and dismay at the revelation that the McDonnells had run up such a massive credit card debt. I had viewed that fact in the context of Maureen McDonnell’s oft-cited complaint that her credit cards were maxed out and her grabbiness in soliciting gifts and loans from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. I drew precisely the conclusion that the prosecution hoped I would: that the McDonnells had run up the tab imprudently, perhaps recklessly.

But it turns out there was more to the story. One reason for the big credit card bill was Bob’s run for governor. He had resigned from his position as Attorney General in February 2009 so someone else could take the helm. He was not exactly left penniless – he made $129,000 during the campaign by going on the payroll of his former law firm, Huff, Poole & Mahoney. Still, as McDonnell told reporters after the trial proceedings, running for governor is expensive.

Yesterday, new dots were added to the page, allowing the jurors (and bloggers) to connect them differently. Under questioning by Henry Asbill, one of Bob McDonnell’s attorneys, Agent Hulser conceded that McDonnell’s credit scores were excellent and that the prosecution had presented no evidence to suggest that he had failed to pay his credit card bills on time. Hulser also conceded that the McDonnells’ credit cards had untapped credit on them, although he could not confirm Asbill’s assertion that the amount approached $175,000 to $200,000. All that came atop previous testimony that the first family had paid down its credit card debt to $31,000 in April 2011 after Maureen received an inheritance and Hulse’s concession that the McDonnells had repaid three loans to Williams totaling $120,000, as had been the intention all along.

Furthermore, here are questions that any reasonably intelligent juror would ask that the prosecutors did not answer:

  • What were the monthly minimum payments on the credit cards?
  • What was the gap between PITI (principal, interest, tax and insurance) on the McDonnells’ former residence in Henrico County and rental income ?
  • What was the gap on their Wintergreen property?
  • What was the gap on the two Virginia Beach houses held in partnership with Bob’s sister?
  • What was the gap on the McDonnells’ Alexandria rental property?
  • What was the income or loss on all those properties? How much of a financial hardship did that pose to a governor earning $175,000 a year and living rent-free in the governor’s mansion?
  • Did the McDonnells subsequently succeed in restructuring their debt? Did a bank and/or credit union deem them credit-worthy?

There’s a lot we don’t know about the McDonnell family finances. This lacunae in the data hardly lets the McDonnells off the hook for soliciting gifts and loans from Williams, a man who was seeking favors from the governor. No matter how you cut it, Bob and Maureen showed colossally bad judgment. The “optics” were terrible. But bad optics are not, in themselves, illegal. And the burdenof proof rests with the prosecution.

While the prosecution did successfully portray the McDonnells as under financial pressure, it hardly made the case that they were desperate. During the time in question, McDonnell was trying to restructure his family finances through loans from the Pentagon Federal Credit Union and Towne Financial Services Group. If he could roll over his debt until his term expired, he could repay it once he started making $500,000 a year or more as a rainmaker for a big Virginia law firm or occupied a well-paid sinecure as a university president somewhere.

That still leaves the seemingly incriminating omission of the Jonnie Williams loans in Bob McDonnell’s loan applications to the Pentagon Federal and Towne Financial, which in previous posts I had regarded as potentially the most damaging charges against the former governor. Why would McDonnell seek to cover up those loans — a potential felony — if not for nefarious purposes?

That question assumes that McDonnell was covering up anything. Defense attorneys revealed their line of logic during cross-examination Wednesday. True, McDonnell submitted a loan application that omitted reference to the Jonnie Williams loans. And, true, after police began asking questions, McDonnell submitted a revised loan document that included the Williams loan information. John Brownlee, McDonnell’s attorney, argued that the governor’s revisions to the loan document were part of an ongoing process before the application was finalized — a process that was extended due to McDonnell’s preoccupation with the legislative session. It turns out he had omitted other data as well, not just the Williams loan. The revised document included a car not mentioned previously. Finally, the Pentagon Federal loan manager testified that she was not surprised to see the revisions. Apparently, such revisions are common.

As for the loan application submitted to Towne Financial, President William Sessoms (who also is Virginia Beach’s mayor) testified that a personal financial statement such as the one McDonnell filled out need not have included mention of debt owed by his wife ($50,000) or by a limited liability company such as MoBo Real Estate Partners.

Bacon’s bottom line: The prosecution case is looking surprisingly weak — and that’s before McDonnell testifies on his own behalf. The prosecution has managed to air a lot of the McDonnell family’s dirty laundry. And it has exposed activities that, if not illegal, perhaps should be illegal. However, if I were a juror rendering a verdict based on what I know at this moment in time, I would vote to acquit. But I have flip-flopped a couple of times already on this trial, and I may well do so again.

Is Pretentious Richmond Really Hooterville?

green acresBy Peter Galuszka

Is Richmond really Hooterville?

By golly gosh, that’s the impression that one might come away with after 14 days of testimony at the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. and Ms. Maureen McDonnell.

Pretentious Richmond likes to see itself as a genteel and sophisticated historic relic with a Southern snob appeal rivaling Charleston, S.C.; an architecture and culture that worship the English (although the best of the Brit lot didn’t always end up here); and basic unfriendliness. At the upper levels, people whose can’t trace their families back several generations are not really welcome unless they have lots of money, which bespeaks Richmond’s more honest background as a service and industrial town.

“RVA” as its promoters like to now brand it, is supposed to be a tourism and great restaurant destination with professional service (that’s a laugh). Residents are supposed to enjoy a high life that goes well beyond a burg of 1.25 million trapped in the distant shadows of Washington, D.C.

To be sure, some younger Richmonders are thankfully well beyond these handcuffs. So are a passel of “come heres” who have brought the town more sophistication from Germany, Japan or Croatia or even from  even from such Deeper South spots as Charlotte and Atlanta — Charleston being little more than a tourist trap and shipping center. Richmond does have nice museums, art galleries and a popular baseball team that they’re trying to ruin by moving it to a congested, politically orchestrated spot.

But you’ve got to wonder. In recent trial testimony, the story was told of Jonnie R. Williams, star witness for the prosecution, who tried to court (among many others) Dr. George Vetrovec, a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University. Williams was trying to get VCU’s and the University of Virginia’s imprimatur on Anatabloc, Williams’ over-the-counter anti-inflammatory so questionable it has just been pulled off the shelves nationally. The former used car salesman also dotted doctors’ meetings with props from Johns Hopkins University as if they were supposed to impress the supposedly lower-tier Virginia folks. To their credit, many state officials didn’t bite.

Dr. Vetrovec thought he was going with Williams to the Executive Mansion to sample some of Ms. McDonnell’s cookies which are supposed to be delicious. Instead, it was a reception for dynamite director Steve Spielberg, in town to film “Lincoln” in October 2011.

Wowie! Zowie! THE Spielberg! “This is the most unusual event you can ever imagine,” the doctor said. As readers can see from the link, Vetrovec’s statements were reprinted in the London media, giving Richmond a somewhat laughable reputation.

Huh? Where the hell are we? “Green Acres?” Go to any city that Richmond aspires to be like Atlanta, D.C. or New York. No one would go nutty over Spielberg-spotting. Movie stars and directors are like so, so what? But Richmond was mad about “Lincoln” and was chock-a-block with all the local stand-ins they hired. You couldn’t walk downtown without tripping over the beard of an extra that he might have waxed with bacon grease to give it an 1865 look and aroma.

My own sister was an extra in “The Exorcist” in Georgetown back in the 70s but she never regarded it as the high point of her life. It was more an amusing anecdote to be shared over a glass of wine. When I worked in Moscow in friendlier times in the 1990s, I was driving downtown near a hotel. I was amazed since it was covered in bullet holes – even more so that I didn’t hear the shots although I lived nearby. Turned out it had been a prop for a Val Kilmer movie and they hadn’t cleaned it up yet. Muscovites did not gush. They walked silently by.

So are Richmonders really that impressionable? Is it a deep sense of being second rate? Is it an over-sized turnip truck? Why were the McDonnells so impressed with Williams’ Ferrari that they had 25 pictures of them with it? Had they never seen a Ferrari before?

There’s the $5,000 bottle of Louis XIII cognac in New York’s Four Seasons hotel. Later, Williams spent something like $36,000 for a four-day getaway for six people including the McDonnells at a posh Cape Cod resort. The six tippled 16 glasses of Louis XIII for something like $125 a snifter. Their dinner menus included lobster, duck, steak and fish – all on Williams’ tab.

And on it goes – the Rolex, Louis Vuitton, Oscar de la Renta, the golf clubs and so on.

The obvious corruption is worrisome and hopefully the  federal (not state)  court will address it.The extra blow is that Richmond doesn’t just look bad, it looks ridiculous. It seems like a Third World capital, perhaps Jakarta, where traders and investors used to bring special goodies for Mrs. Suharto (a.k.a. “Mrs. Ten Percent.”)

Will Richmond be regarded as too simple to handle business, culture, science and education in  a much more interconnected and increasingly sophisticated world? Will foreign business scouts show up at RIC with suitcases full of cash, or maybe fake gold trinkets? Could it be that the McDonnells have it right — Richmond is really Hicksville after all?