Category Archives: Disaster planning

Closely Watched Trains?

wva oil trainBy Peter Galuszka

The small town of Pembroke in southwest Virginia is used to seeing endlessly long unit trains of coal cars rumbling past. But last week, it got an unexpected surprise – trains of similar length hauling crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields started going by.

According to Reuters, Pembroke is one of many Virginia towns that are being affected by CSX’s derailment and explosion of oil tank cars filled with Bakken oil a few miles east of Montgomery, W.Va.  on Feb. 16. The massive blast sent fireballs hundreds of feet in the air and forced the evacuation of nearby residents including a college. It also stopped all rail traffic on a major, east-west CSX line for days.

A similar derailment involving a CSX oil train happened last April in Lynchburg on the same rail mainline. Several tank cars caught fire down causing a fire and a spill into the James River.

So, after the West Virginia incident, CSX got in touch with rival Norfolk Southern to see if it could reroute oil trains on some of its lines.

This brings up another issue – who should be informed when new railroad trains hauling potentially explosive or otherwise hazardous cargoes suddenly show up in your backyard? Do they have to tell you so you can get the flashlight, thermos and sleeping bag ready for your immediate evacuation if necessary?

CSX says it has informed appropriate public safety officials of such route changes, but is loath to let the general public in where it is sending unusual trains. Security and proprietary information, you understand.

CSX needs to keep its tank cars rolling to big oil terminal in Yorktown near the Chesapeake Bay. That site had been an Amoco refinery for years but the refinery shut down and was switched to an oil water terminal now owned by Houston-based Plains All-American.

The facility receives Bakken shale oil cars and loads the crude on barges that are then pushed or towed to East Coast refineries, notably in the Philadelphia area. Presumably, if petroleum exports from the U.S. start again, the Yorktown site would be excellent embarkation point.

So, instead of having tank cars with Bakken crude trundling from Charleston, W.Va. through the New River Gorge and on to Lynchburg, they will go on more southerly NS lines through places like Pembroke and Roanoke. Then they will be switched at Petersburg to CSX lines and go north to Richmond and east to Yorktown.

It looks like Richmond could potentially get it either way. On the usual route, oil trains pass by downtown on an elevated bridge which would be quite a mess if a derailment happened there. According to the Forest Ethics Website, all of downtown Richmond to about one half of a mile on either side would have to be evacuated if a major derailment with fires and explosions came.

With the temporary rerouting, Richmond would still be in serious jeopardy in case of a derailment. If I’m reading the map correctly, trains would still pass through the city.

So, you have to ask yourself – why does CSX get away with keeping all this secret? They claim they let “appropriate” public safety officials know, but the Richmond Times Dispatch last year quoted a Richmond fire officer in charge of hazardous situations as saying he had a hard time learning from CSX what a “worse case” scenario would be in the event of a Richmond derailment.

Part of the problem is PR. Bakken shale oil comes from controversial hydraulic fracturing. The uptick in production has turned America’s energy picture on its head. It has also made for big jumps in oil rail traffic. Another problem is that Bakken oil tends to be more explosive than other types.

According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped by 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 shipments last year. Accidents are way up. In 2013, tank cars carrying Bakken crude somehow got loose in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. They rolled through the small town, derailed and exploded. The blast killed 47 and wiped out half of downtown.

According to a recent probe by the Associated Press, a federal study predicts that oil shipments will rise to 900,000 shipments this year. The study predicts that trains hauling petroleum will derail 10 times a year over the next two decades. They could possibly cause $4 billion in damages and kill hundreds of people, the AP reports.

What to do? Build pipelines, I guess, but that’s been highly controversial as well as the experience with Dominion Transportation’s efforts with a $5 billion gas pipeline through the state and the controversy over the Keystone XL show.

Better, newer, safer tank cars? Maybe, but the West Virginia and Lynchburg derailments both involved new “1232” models. The same type also caught fire recently in Timmins, Ontario.

Federal rules require railroads to tell local officials where they are carrying Bakken crude, which is more explosive than other types. Railroads like CSX claim the information is proprietary, according to Reuters. That’s rather pointless. If the goal is to keep “proprietary” information from competitors, Norfolk Southern, CSX’s biggest competitor, already knows about it because it has agreed to let CSX use its rail lines.

And don’t ask some public officials. West Virginia officials have gone along with keeping much of the information secret. Mountain State officials responded to an Freedom of Information Act request by redacting much of the data they finally gave out.

Not only do the railroads need to clean up their act, they should be forced to be more forthcoming about where the next evacuation might be.

Land, Density and Resilience

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org.

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org. (Click for detail.)

One more takeaway from the Resilient Virginia launch conference yesterday: All other things being equal, more compact communities are more resilient communities.

Like Bacon’s Rebellion, Cooper Martin, program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute, is a big fan of Joe Minicozzi and his maps and graphics showing how dramatically land value-per-acre varies between core urban areas, suburbs and the countryside. Densely settled urban cores have land values that are literally a hundred times higher per acre than low-density shopping centers and large-lot subdivisions.

In my commentary, I have focused mainly upon the fiscal folly of building disconnected, low-density development. The infrastructure — the roads, utilities, sidewalks and other amenities — are more expensive per household to maintain. But Martin added a new dimension when addressing the Resilient Virginia conference yesterday. Low-density development makes it more expensive to harden homes and businesses against disruption and catastrophe. When the taxable value of land is high, it’s easier to support expensive investments to protect that land than when the value of the land is low.

So, to take Hampton Roads, which I have written much about recently, resiliency planners need to take into account not only which areas are flood-prone, but which urbanized areas have land values high enough to make them economically justifiable to protect.

It’s going to be gut-wrenching and agonizing, but local officials must come to grips with the reality that much of the development that has taken place is fiscally indefensible. The region cannot possibly afford to protect every low-density subdivision in every flood-prone region — much less the roads and bridges providing connectivity for them — no matter how loudly unhappy homeowners howl at the prospect of being abandoned. The sooner local officials begin making these determinations, the sooner developers will stop building in indefensible areas and the fewer the naive homeowners who will be harmed.

As a practical matter, Hampton Roads municipalities will have to evolve to a pattern of denser development on higher land. Where development exists in flood-prone areas, there will have to be sufficient density to justify spending millions of dollars on protective measures. Fortunately, this is a slow-motion problem. The region has decades to adapt. But it needs to begin now — when complex and painful decisions must be made, decades can slip away in no time at all.

– JAB

Resilience and Competitive Economic Advantage

Flooded Honda factory in Bangkok, 2011 -- what you might call a serious business continuity issue.

Flooded Honda factory in Bangkok, 2011 — what you might call a serious business continuity issue.

by James A. Bacon

If you were a manufacturing company contemplating an expansion to Hampton Roads, you would take into account traditional criteria such as proximity to customers and suppliers, access to a skilled workforce, transportation connections, prevailing wage levels, taxes and so on. But as corporations become increasingly sensitive to the issue of business continuity in the face of disruption or disaster, you also might consider the region’s vulnerability to flooding.

Outside of New Orleans, Hampton Roads is the lowest-lying metropolitan area in the country. It is notoriously prone to flooding now, and the region’s vulnerability will only get worse as the sea level rises. You may or may not believe the McAuliffe administration’s predictions that the sea level will be 1 1/2 feet higher by 2050, but the risk that the forecast might prove accurate would have to factor into your calculations. Logical questions would arise: Would flooding disrupt rail and highway access to your facility? Would it hamper the ability of employees to get to work?

Perhaps the most important question is this: Do state and local governments have a plan to cope with recurrent flooding that will likely only get worse in time? How resilient is the region — not just one particular jurisdiction but, given the connectedness of transportation arteries and commuter flows — the entire region?

The resiliency movement is gaining momentum around the country, driven mainly by worries about climate change. Whatever your views on that polarizing issue, however, there are sound reasons to engage in planning on how to make your community less vulnerable to natural or man-made catastrophes (see “The Non Global Warmist’s Case for Resiliency Planning.”) The fragility of Hampton Roads is obvious for all to see. But every community has vulnerabilities of some kind. The integrity of the electric grid and water supply, for instance, are things everyone should worry about.

Every community should know its risk profile. In Hampton Roads the big concern is flooding. Western towns and cities worry about forest fires. Plains localities lose sleep over tornadoes, while others fear blizzards or terrorist attacks.

The insurance industry pays close attention to some of those risks, which are reflected in insurance rates (unless government policy distorts the price signals by subsidizing rates, as it does with flood insurance.) But, as Cooper Martin, program director for the Sustainable Cities Institute, observed at the Resilient Virginia launch yesterday, insurance covers less than half of total losses. States and localities don’t have insurance for washed out roads and bridges, for instance. There’s no insurance policy that covers the aftermath of a forest fire when rain washes ash into the water supply. “Who pays for uninsured losses?” he asks.

Perhaps the most unappreciated risk of catastrophe is to is a region’s brand, Martin said. Increasingly, a willingness of communities to identify systemic risks, develop plans to deal with them and maintain the financial commitment to carry out the plans will be a big differentiating factor. Corporations that place a premium on business continuity will pay close attention.

The Non Global-Warmist’s Case for Resiliency Planning

hampton_roads_flooding2

by James A. Bacon

The key to building a strong resiliency movement — making communities more adaptable in the face of natural and man-made disasters — is finding common ground. So argued Steven McNulty, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southeast Regional Climate Hub, in addressing the launch event of Resilient Virginia this morning.

Fear of rising temperatures, droughts and sea-level rise is a major impetus behind the increasing emphasis that all levels of government are placing on resiliency. But political views about climate change are highly polarized, McNulty said. “Are you a fear monger, or are you a denier? We need to get beyond that.”

Most climate scientists believe that man-made climate change is a cause for concern. But the forestry land managers McNulty deals with do not. In a recent survey, he said, “only 10% of Southeast foresters thought that climate change is man-made and real. The agricultural community is almost as disbelieving.” As it happens, their perceptions are not without basis, he added. Rising temperatures in the Southeastern U.S. have been far less pronounced than anywhere else in the country.

It’s hard to mobilize people who don’t believe in catastrophic man-made global warming to change the way they do business. “Don’t talk climate change; you’ll lose a lot of folks,” said McNulty. But flip the issue to climate variability, and the conversation takes on a different tone. Everyone acknowledges that temperatures and precipitation fluctuate, and everyone would like to protect themselves from those fluctuations. “You don’t need global warming to have big disasters.”

McNulty was one of several speakers Thursday morning who made the case for resiliency planning. The resiliency issue hasn’t made big inroads in Virginia but Resiliency Virginia, a non-profit group of state and local government officials, environmentalists and private companies, hopes to change that. The group has a mission of educating the public, sharing best practices and encouraging people to take action.

In Virginia, the most pressing resiliency issues are in the low-lying Tidewater region, especially the Hampton Roads metropolitan area where thousands of people and millions of dollars in private buildings and public infrastructure are exposed to flooding. As Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, told the gathering, a one-and-a-half foot sea level rise would inundate 82 square miles of dry land in Virginia, 15 miles of interstate highway, miles of railroad track and significant port acreage.

While there is plenty of controversy over how rapidly the sea level is rising in Hampton Roads — not everyone accepts the prediction that the sea level will rise 18 inches by 2050 — few would deny that between subsidence (partly caused by the draw-down of aquifers, partly by the shift in tectonic plates) and the slow-but-steady sea level rise seen over the past century unrelated to man-made climate change, flooding will become increasingly severe.

Flooding in low-lying areas is not the only potential disruption to Virginia communities. Flash flooding is an issue in urban areas where the ground has been covered by asphalt and the ground has lost is capacity to absorb rain water. Ice storms, snow storms and drought are recurrent concerns. Some worry about the impact of massive solar flares that could overwhelm the electric grid. There are man-made issues as well, such as potential terrorist strikes against critical infrastructure, particularly the electric grid.

In Chicago urban flooding is a significant issue, said Cooper Martin, program director for the Sustainable Cities Institute. When city officials began mapping where the insurance claims were occurring, they expected them to cluster in the flood plains. The traditional response to flooding had been to bring in the engineers, build some levees and build some dams. But close analysis showed that many claims were occurring outside the flood plains. “All that concrete has created a new ecosystem, creating flash flood hazards,” said Martin. “The way we’ve built this community is fundamentally non-resilient. More concrete is not the answer. Taking out some of the pavement may be the most productive thing to do.”

Another problem is rampant developing in vulnerable coastal areas. An analysis of 77 counties along the Gulf Coast (not including Florida) showed $2 trillion in asset value. “Even without climate change,” said Martin, “the way we’re building our communities, we’re creating risks where we didn’t have them before.”

People have a lot of ideas of how to prepare for another Katrina-scale hurricane, said Martin. But which options offer the greatest protection for the least cost? Building up beaches offers a high payback, as do building codes mandating construction standards to withstand higher winds. (Sixty percent of Katrina’s damage came from winds, not flooding.) Mandating higher home elevations is on the borderline of being economically justified; other proposals offer a very low return. As long as coastal communities continue to permit development, they need to address these issues.

Bacon’s bottom line. As I’ve made clear repeatedly on this blog, I’m not convinced that human-caused climate change is a cause for alarm, much less an excuse to re-engineer the economy. But you don’t need to be an apocalyptic environmentalist to value resiliency. Disasters happen. They always have, always will. We don’t protect ourselves from disaster by burying our heads in the sand and pretending they can’t possibly happen. We protect ourselves by anticipating possibilities, weighing probabilities and setting priorities. That kind of thinking is making inroads in Virginia, but we have a long way to go. I applaud Resilient Virginia for highlighting the issue. Check out the Resilient Virginia blog here.

Coal Giant Won’t Pay Blankenship Legal Bill

don-blankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The the man described by Rolling Stone as the “The Dark Lord of the Coal Fields” is suing coal giant Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol for refusing to pay his legal bills as he approaches his criminal trial April 20 related to the worst coal-mine disaster in 40 years.

Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of Richmond-based Massey Energy, filed suit in Delaware against Alpha which said: “Going forward, we do not intend to pay any legal fees with regard to Don Blankenship’s defense.” Those fees are likely to run in the millions.

Blankenship was indicted in November on four felony counts related to safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine where an explosion killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010. He is also accused of securities fraud.

Blankenship resigned from Massey in December 2010 with a parachute estimated at $86 million. Alpha bought Massey in 2011 for $7 billion.

Since then, Alpha has been retraining the hundreds of Massey workers it absorbed but has gone through severe layoffs as demand for coal has stumbled.

Alpha’s stock has slipped from about $5 a share a year ago to $1.19 a share now. The firm lost $875 million last year. Demand for thermal coal has been drying up as cheaper natural gas from fracking has flooded the market. Also, the rich steel-making coal reserves Alpha got with its buy of Massey have gone wanting as Asian nations, especially China, go through an economic slump.

Blankenship will go on trial in U.S. District Court in Beckley, W.Va.

Dominion Resources Is on a Tear

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

Dominion Resources has been on a tear recently.

It’s been muscling through a dubious law in the General Assembly that would allow it to avoid State Corporation Commission rate audits for six years.

And, it has been throwing its weight around in less populated sections of the state. It is suing to force its way on the land of private property owners to survey its $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline project that would take fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia and Pennsylvania on new routes to the southeast.

Property owners, particularly those in Nelson and Augusta Counties, are fighting in federal court in Harrisonburg.

What’s most interesting about this case is how the Commonwealth of Virginia, which swaddles itself in the ideals of the American Revolution of individual rights , somehow ignores the rights of small property owners when a big utility with deep pockets for political donations is involved. One wonders where all the conservatives are who were huffing and puffing over the Kelo case a few years back

And (bonus question) what do the two situations have in common? Republican State Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, that’s who. He introduced the bill for Dominion to sidestep SCC oversight with the excuse that Dominion has deal with the impacts of a yet-to-be-finalized set of new federal carbon emission rules.

In 2004, Wagner also carried water for Dominion and other power companies by getting a law passed that would allow a “public service company” to survey private property without getting permission.

This is the basis of several hundred lawsuits Dominion has filed against small landowners. In the pipeline case, it will be interesting to see whether the natural gas is used for the common good of American customers or will end up being exported to foreign countries. Dominion insists it won’t,  but time will tell.

Another oddity is that Dominion is demanding access to survey a pipeline route when it hasn’t formally applied for  the project with the Federal Energy Energy Commission. Imagine if some private landowners showed up at the front door of Dominion’s downtown Richmond headquarters and demanded access to the building because they were thinking about building a natural gas pipeline? (Somebody call security!)

Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for this morning’s Washington Post.

The Many Problems of Offshore Drilling

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

Almost five years after the infamous Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama has again proposed opening tracts offshore of Virginia and the southeastern U.S. coast to oil and natural gas drilling.

The plan poses big risks for what may be little gain. Federal surveys show there could be 3.3 billion barrels of crude oil and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the potential lease area stretching from Virginia to Georgia.

Energy industry officials praised the plan while complaining it doesn’t go far enough. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation condemned it. Besides the ecological risk, the move is a step away from refocusing energy on renewables that do not lead to more carbon emissions and climate change.

Obama’s plan would restrict drilling to areas more than 50 miles off the coast. This is a sop to the Navy and other military which conduct regular exercises offshore and to the commercial and sports fishing industries.

Is the restriction worthwhile? It is generally easier for oil rigs to be placed in shallow water and much of the areas off of Virginia and northeastern North Carolina and off of South Carolina and Georgia are in plateaus that aren’t very deep – maybe just a few hundred feet. Yet the Atlantic takes a huge plunge not far off of Cape Hatteras, descending as much as two miles down.

Drilling in deep water presents special problems for oil companies involving high pressure and high temperatures. That was the case with the Deepwater Horizon tragedy on April 20, 1010 that killed 11 workers. One big factor that a blowout preventer, designed to shut down the rig if drilling hits abnormally high levels of pressure, didn’t work completely. The rig was in 5,000 feet of water and crude spewed uncontrolled. Winds from the south washed the oil towards land and polluted nearly 500 miles of coastline in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude were released.

oil-drilling-mapAlthough it isn’t certain if energy firms would drill in the very deep waters off of North Carolina, there is cold comfort in the fact that the Deepwater rig was only 48 miles from shore. In other words, it would have been too close in for the latest plan involving the southeastern coast. Supposedly, blowout preventers have been upgraded but there were still spills involving them off of Brazil and China post-Deepwater.

If something like that happened closer to home, it is not exactly certain where the oil would go. Winds can blow from the ocean and currents are very fickle. The Labrador Current might tend to push spilled oil back onto environmentally sensitive shoreline while the Gulf Stream might tend to take the spilled oil out to sea.

There is no question that drilling off any of the southeastern coast would be of some benefit to the now-struggling Tidewater economy since it has plenty of steel-bending industries, an able workforce and no significant bridges to pass under to reach deep water. It might help since the defense sector is winding down, but who knows what world conflicts will be like in 2025. Hampton Roads would be a more logical staging area than other ports such as Wilmington, N.C., Charleston or Savannah.

There’s a rub, however. The 3.3 billion barrels of estimated reserves isn’t that much. It is a fraction of the total estimated reserves in the country. Energy sector officials claim there is probably much more. Okay, fine, but no one knows for sure. The natural gas reserves involved are also somewhat small – just a fraction of the estimated reserves in the U.S.

It’s not the first time offshore drilling has come up locally. There was a big push for it in the late 1970s, prompting oil rig giant Brown & Root to buy up land near Cape Charles for fabricating rigs. Nothing happened and much of the land now is used for a luxury golf community. Obama was supposed to back lease sales in 2010 but then Deepwater happened. This begs the question – if the offshore petroleum is so valuable, why has it taken so long?

Yet another issue is what cut Virginia would actually get from offshore drilling. There was a flap a few years ago when offshore drilling was being pitched. Some revenues to states from offshore petroleum production are computed by how much shoreline a state has. In Virginia’s case, it is not much, at least when compared to North Carolina. Virginia politicians have pointed this out and hope for some adjustment.

No one can predict energy markets a decade from now. For instance, no one knew that hydraulic fracturing would increase petroleum production by 64 percent and possibly make the U.S. a petroleum exporter for the first time since the 1970s. Granted it is a rock and a hard place kind of choice. Fracking is fraught with pollution problems just as offshore drilling is.

There are certain to be plenty of lawsuits over the offshore plan and economics will likely determine its future. An important choice is whether it is worth risking Virginia’s military, resort and fishing businesses for Big Oil whose promise is uncertain when it comes to offshore drilling.

The Strange Story of Health Diagnostic Laboratory

HDL's Mallory before her fall.

HDL’s Mallory before her fall.

By Peter Galuszka

The biggest problem facing the health care industry in Virginia and the rest of the country isn’t Obamacare or the lack of new medical discoveries. It the lack of transparency that hides what is really going on with pricing tests, drugs and hospital and doctors’ fees. Big Insurance and Big and Small Pharma cut secret deals. We are all affected.

I’ve been wanting to blog about this – especially after Jim Bacon’s recent post on the supposed tech trend in health care – but I wanted to wait until a story I’ve been working on for a few weeks was posted at Style Weekly, where I am a contributing editor.

In it, I explore the strange story of Health Diagnostic Laboratory, a famed Richmond start-up that went from zero to $383 million in revenues and 800 employees in a few short years. The firm said it was developing advanced bio-marker tests that could predict heart disease and diabetes long before they took root. HDL’s officials thought it would transform the $1.6 trillion health care industry.

Richmond’s business elite applauded HDL founder Tonya Mallory, a woman who grew up just north of the city and had the strong personality and drive to create the HDL behemoth. Badly wanting a high tech champion in a not-so high tech town, the city’s boosters did much to publicize HDL and Mallory, believing they could draw in more startups.

The story was too good to be true. It start to deflate last summer when the federal government noted that HDL was one of several testing labs being probed for paying doctors $17 for using HDL tests for Medicare patients when Medicare authorized $3 per test. Mallory resigned Dept. 23. Several lawsuits by Mallory’s former employer, Cigna health insurance and another have accused HDL of fraud. HDL has responded in court.

One legal picture suggests that HDL wasn’t a true tech startup but a new firm that stole intellectual property and sales staff. HDL says no, but its new leader Joe McConnell has taken steps to reform sales and marketing and is said to be working with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a federal investigation.

The HDL affair raises issues about the inside marketing and apparent payoffs that are the biggest problem the health care industry faces. It doesn’t matter what kind of “market magic” combined with new technology comes up if something like this keeps happening.

This is all the more reason for a universal payer system. That may be “socialized” medicine but in my opinion it is the only logical way to go.

The Real “War on Coal”

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

By Peter Galuszka

Over in West Virginia, some things never seem to change.

Families of the 29 miners killed on April 5, 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch are asking a federal judge to lift her gag order so they can testify before West Virginia legislators considering tougher rules that would make it easier for workers to sue employers over job-related injuries and deaths.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger issued the gag order last year after Donald L. Blankenship, the former chief of Richmond-based Massey Energy, was indicted on four criminal charges for his role in the disaster – the worst one in 40 years. He is scheduled to go on trial in Beckley on April 20.

The question seems to be that the judge is protecting Blankenship’s rights over those of the people hurt by his management. It is not really news in the Mountain State that has always supported Coal Barons over workers. It’s a weird, neo-colonialist thing that never seems to change.

This month, Berger denied a move by several news agencies, including the Charleston Gazette and The Wall Street Journal, to lift the gag order.

As head of Massey Energy, which has since been taken over by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, Blankenship was a true publicity hog. He was never shy about pushing his arch-conservative, pro-business views or bankrolling politicians and judges. Worrying about protecting his legal rights at the expense of free speech is a real travesty.

Yes, there is a “War on Coal” – but the other way around. The conflict is how coal bosses wage war on their employees and their families.

Takeaways From Bob McDonnell’s Sentencing

Mcd sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

The outpouring of support for convicted former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was overwhelming at his sentencing hearing yesterday at which he was told that he will serve two years in a federal penitentiary.

And this very support stands in marked contrast to McDonnell’s performance on the witness stand during his marathon trial last summer. There he alternated between saying that he “holds himself accountable” and then blaming his aides, vitamin salesman Jonnie R. Williams and, of course, his estranged wife Maureen who was set up to take the fall.

So which Bob is really Bob?

In U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer’s courtroom, the hours’ long reading of letters of support and 11 witness testimonials from the stand became tedious and repetitive. Bob kneels down to comfort a sick woman. Bob helps out Katrina hurricane victims on his week-long vacation, builds a basketball court and breaks his jaw. Bob restores voting rights to 8,128 convicted felons who had served their time. Bob’s only flaws are his gullibility and naïvite. Bob writes thank you notes.

The most impressive supporter by far was L. Douglas Wilder, the former Richmond mayor who became the first-ever African-American governor. Always unpredictable, the Democratic politician came down hard on Bob’s side, saying he’s known him for years and found him to “to be of his word.” Wilder touched off applause in the courtroom he blamed Williams as “the man who started this bribe” as “the one who got away clean.”

All of these people were trying to convince Judge Spencer that Bob should not get jail time but 6,000 hours of community service. One option would be to stick him in a service coordination job on the island nation of Haiti. The job normally would pay $100,000 including benefits but Bob wouldn’t get the money and would work and have to sleep in a hot and buggy room. Other possibilities including holding an unpaid $60,000 job coordinating a food bank in southwest Virginia.

To his credit, Judge Spencer didn’t bite. Prosecutor Michael Dry said that McDonnell is free to do all the community service he wants after he serves his time behind bars. McDonnell could have gotten more than 12 years in prison. Spencer gave him two.

The sentence is on the light side but is probably fair. McDonnell has been tremendously humiliated. He completely dishonored his public trust and will go down in history as the Virginia governor who was corrupt. At least he is getting some jail time.

And he might win on appeal. It’s not a slam dunk but there is respected legal opinion out there that “honest services fraud” can be viewed in a tight or loose focus. Spencer chose a tight focus but we will have to see if the appeal McDonnell has filed gets to the U.S. Fourth Circuit and then Supreme Court.

Next up is wife Maureen, who is a tragic figure and also was convicted of corruption. Her own daughters characterized her as a sick woman who badly needs help. Some columnists have pumped her up, saying she’s the unsung heroine stuck raising the kids while the ambitious politician is selfishly away building his career.

Something about that argument doesn’t ring true to me. Maureen McDonnell may well have despised the time Bob spent away from her but she also was right beside him, pushing her own agenda such as selling nutraceuticals and backing pet programs such as marketing Virginia wines and helped injured military veterans. As First Lady, she was no shrinking violet when it came to letting her wishes known to state employees.

She comes up for sentencing Feb. 20 and now that her husband’s fate is known, it seems likely she won’t get any jail time. If so, maybe she can get the help she seems to badly need and the McDonnell family can start to heal their terrible wounds.

One of the character witnesses Tuesday was William Howell, the Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates who provided the enormously valuable insight that “people would describe Bob as a Boy Scout.” Not only is Howell’s remark insipid, it hides how much he’s responsible for maintaining the total mess that policing ethics among Virginia public officials has become.

No matter how many Wednesday morning Bible studies Howell says he attended with McDonnell, he still did nothing to improve regulation of political donations and gifts. If anything, he’s the problem not the solution since he minimizes every decent initiative to rationalize Virginia’s loosey-goosey system. If there were clear rules, McDonnell may never have gotten caught in his quagmire. He might have known when to avoid crossing the line.

Howell told the court that the General Assembly is busy setting its house right and that McDonnell’s predicament “Most certainly . . . has had a deterrent effect.” That was likely the most ridiculous statement during the five hours of court testimony on a horrid sentencing day.