Category Archives: Media

Whatever Happened to Ken Cuccinelli?

cooch.pixBy Peter Galuszka

During the grueling, nearly-six-week-long trial of former Gov. Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell that ended Thursday, one prominent political figure seemed oddly absent – former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli.

The firebrand conservative who lost last year’s gubernatorial contest to Democrat Terry McAuliffe was a significant player in the McDonnell scandal. He took favors from prosecution witness and businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., such as enjoying airplane rides to New York and Thanksgiving and summer vacations at Williams’ Smith Mountain Lake house.

Like McDonnell, he didn’t initially report Williams’ presents on state disclosure forms and was later cleared by a state prosecutor of any wrong doing. He was placed on the potential witness list by McDonnell’s lawyers but was never called.

Yet Cuccinelli played an early and much-unreported role in the case. Todd Schneider, the governor’s chef who plead guilty to some misdemeanors for stealing food, was apparently first confronted by State Police and the FBI on Feb. 10, 2012. Shortly afterwards, that March, Schneider had long chats with Cuccinelli and his staff about the wrong doing involving Williams and the McDonnells.

Cuccinelli was oddly quiet about the matter until the following November of that year when he further involved the state police and FBI. What took so long? No one seems to know.

There’s no uncertainty about Cuccinelli’s involvement with Williams, however. In the early days of his term as attorney general, some of his staffers were put up at Williams’ 29-acre estate in Goochland County while they found lodging in Richmond. Cuccinelli was reported to have visited the home.

His ties with Williams caused some problems. Cuccinelli had to recuse himself from representing the state in a long-standing lawsuit involving the taxation of some building’s owned by Star Scientific, Williams former company. Other representation was produced at taxpayers’ expense.

During their four years in office, it seemed clear that McDonnell and Cuccinelli disliked each other and often worked at cross purposes. Cuccinelli was a polarizing element on such issues as hounding a former University of Virginia professor on climate change, covering up the lactation gland of the woman on the seal of Virginia, and pushing stringent anti-abortion policies that led to the shutdown of many legal abortion clinics. McDonnell did some of the same but tried a bigger tent approach on his marquee legislation on funding transportation.

Todd Schneider, the chef who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., doesn’t care for Cuccinelli much either. “He’s got the personality of a stone, and he talks forever. I’d sit there and I’d be like, ‘Oh, my God—will you just be quiet?,’ ” Schneider told the Washingtonian.

Tension between McDonnell and Cuccinelli was clearly visible to the staff. “They wouldn’t talk to each other,” Schneider says. “As soon as they took a picture together, they would take off to opposite places in the room.”

Since losing the gubernatorial election and leaving office, Cuccinelli has headed the Senate Conservatives fund. According to the Washington Times, his organization has blown several elections.

The Day The Guilty Verdicts Came In

mcd convictedBy Peter Galuszka

Day Three of waiting. The jokes in the tiny seventh floor media room of the U.S. District Court Building have grown stale.

We’d discuss what the jury ate for lunch (Padows? Jimmie Johns?) which we could see as the trolley rolled through the security doors. We were amusing ourselves by reading a hilarious underground Website (yoflo.net) about the McDonnell trial called “You’re Only First Lady Once,” replete with haikus such as “Empty beach house/A greedy wife and five kids/ jail will not be fun.”

Suddenly, one of the Post reporters blurts out from her screen, “Verdict.”

We rush out to assume our positions at the courtroom down the hall. My mission and goal, as explained by my Bloomberg News editors, is speed. First guilty verdict, fly out of there and either call or tweet or email. Go back. Detail can come later.

It took some time for the intellectual rights trial over patents to clear up before we could go in to the courtroom where we’d spent the better part of six weeks. There was an air of excitement in the first corruption trial ever of a Virginia governor. It is truly as heart-pounding moment, a coiled spring kind of thing. And once it finally starts, it has own unique swiftness.

Jury’s in — seven men and five women after 17 hours of deliberating. “Have you reached a verdict?” Then, “Guilty on Count One of Conspiracy to Commit Honest Services Wire Fraud.”

My cue. I duck past the U.S. Marshals at the door and get in a sprinting race with a young Post reporter. Make the curve by the elevators but she’s gaining and gets first to the media room, the only place we’re allowed to have the electronics that let us do our jobs. I fumble with my cell and finally get the number of Joe, my rewrite editor in New York. The goal is to beat the Associated Press. Did we? Joe doesn’t know yet.

I report, and according to plan, go to the sixth floor overflow room with remote television access to the courtroom, since it will be impossible to get back into the room where the action is. By now they are on Count Nine: Obtaining Property Under Color of Official Right.

I hear what sounds like sobbing. Then wailing, rising in a crescendo with each stab of a guilty verdict. It is a weird reality TV show kind of audio. Both Robert F. McDonnell and his wife are crying although I can’t see them. The wailing is from one of their daughters. It’s hard to describe emotions at such times. It’s like watching a bad car wreck. It is not funny.

The reporters form up, true to pack etiquette, and make sure we all have the right verdicts. Then it’s down to the street where the chum of photographers awaits. There is an emotional electricity on the streets, sort of like being in a hospital corridor when a relative finally dies.

The U.S. Attorney and the FBI are speaking into a mass of microphones maybe 50 feet away. Most, however, are waiting for the McDonnells. Ashen faced, the former Governor leaves the building in a mass of people. He thanks the press for how it handled things. He is pushed into a grey Mercedes. Then Maureen, wearing a brown suit, slips past with one of her daughters, and enters into a grey Infinity Q50, which speeds after the Mercedes.

It’s Oh, So Richmond!

By Peter Galuszka

cantorWhen I looked at my Richmond Times Dispatch, I was stunned. I couldn’t find a story that their wunderkind Congressman, Eric Cantor, the kind of Republican they love, had gotten a big deal job with Moelis & Co., a New York boutique investment bank.

There was the story in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Finally, the RTD straggled  on with brief piece at 6:22 a.m. on its Website.

Maybe it’s embarrassment. Cantor, the former House Majority Leader, could do no wrong with his Main Street Republican friends or the editors of the local newspaper. His wife, Diana, was on the board when the newspaper was owned by Media General. Then came his stunning defeat in a June primary to unknown David Brat, who ran a mash-up of a Tea Party and Libertarian insurgency.

Moelis says it is hiring Cantor “for his judgment and experience” and ability to open doors, says the Journal. He’ll live in Virginia and have offices in Washington and New York.

Well, that was quick! Or maybe not. Cantor has raised $1.4 million from the financial services sector, as well as lots from managed care. His sense of entitlement is astounding. First, he thought he didn’t have to bother with the home folks in the Seventh District any more, costing him the election. They he arranged (with Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s help) a special election.

Doing so would get his replacement in office faster and thus Virginia can keep its seats on some important committees. But it also frees Cantor to take his plum job.

You didn’t read it in the RTD first! Somethings will never change.

Why There Will be No Ethics Reform

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

As the McDonnell corruption trial moves towards its end, the predictable stories are decrying – once again – Virginia’s absurdly lax ethics laws and why they must be toughened.

There’s the usual observation that the five-week extravaganza of a trial that is drawing international attention will put the state on an entirely new axis when it comes to public integrity. Plenty of harrumphing.

The General Assembly, however, had its shot this winter and came through with only very mild changes putting dollar limits for tangible “gifts” while failing to take any kind of substantive measure, such as establishing a real investigatory ethics commission.

The best work I’ve seen has come from the Roanoke Times’ Dan Casey who pored over the new ethics law that went into effect July 1 and compared it with testimony that ended last week at the McDonnell trial (it goes to the jury tomorrow.)

A few of Casey’s pointers:

  • The famous $6,500 Rolex. Would Jonnie Williams been stopped from giving it to Maureen and then Bob McDonnell? Not at all. The new law says that officials, spouses an immediate family may not accept anything tangible that is more than $250 in value. But, this applies only to lobbyists and business executives seeking state contracts. Williams wasn’t looking for a traditional state contract, specifically. He wanted gubernatorial help in prompting his product Anatabloc and gubernatorial muscle to pressure state universities into researching its key ingredient, anatabine.
  •  Bob probably wouldn’t have had to report the Rolex because it came from a “personal friend” who is not a lobbyist or person doing business with the state. At least McDonnell testified that he thought he was a friend. Not Jonnie whose plan was  to schmooze up Maureen and Bob, get them to get state university research and then the schools would apply to the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission to give them more research money (plus the prestige of having the University of Virginia or Virginia Commonwealth University seal of approval on it.)
  • McDonnell daughter Cailin didn’t want the $15,000 Jonnie gave for her wedding luncheon. In fact, she wanted a very different, much smaller wedding that she and her husband would mostly finance. Mommy and Daddy said no but were short funds and Jonnie helped out. Would the new law change anything? Not at all. The law puts the $250 limit on “tangibles” but “intangibles” like dinners, outings, five figure vacations, a wedding event or $5,000 Louis XIII cognac bottles don’t count although they are supposed to be reported.
  • As for an ethics commission, we have a milquetoast “advisory” panel that has no investigative power. Once again, the “Virginia Way” prevails (see my Washington Post piece from last year. The state is all about self-policing because it is assumed that since Thomas Jefferson was honest, Virginia politicians must be, too. While Virginia has an excellent data base, the Virginia Public Assess Project, a non-profit, that can reveal what’s reported quickly and easily, it is too often seen as a substitute for a real ethics commission with subpoena power.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who signed the limp-wristed law, says he wants to review ethics and make regs tougher.

I doubt that will happen. I do not think we’re seeing a sea change in attitudes among legislators. Even if voters were going nuts, they’d still have to deal with a General Assembly that is dominated by hard-right Republicans who are selected in primaries and not general elections and are probably the most conservative ever thanks to gerrymandering and the anti-reg mantra they pray like a Rosary.

Can GiftGate happen again in Virginia? In the words of convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich: “You betcha!”

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.”

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?

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?

State Workers: GiftGate’s Unsung Heroes

mcD.pixBy Peter Galuszka

The McDonnell corruption trial, now going into its third week, is an enormously sad and tawdry affair bringing shame on the defendants and the prosecution’s key witness, businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Yet there are heroes — state employees. A number of them have testified over the past week that they sensed that something stunk with the way Williams, who has no formal science training, relentlessly pushed his questionable product and maneuvered to get the state’s prestigious universities to put their imprimatur on it so it could move from being a low margin neutraceutical to a real and profitable pharmaceutical.

“Perhaps the only gratifying aspect of the trial last week was the extraordinary professionalism of the Virginia bureaucracy,” Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

He’s spot on. One reads so many attacks on government workers among more conservative writers who see public workers as slow-minded except when it comes to tying business up with regulations — the theory goes. Private workers build wealth and create products. Public workers live off the taxpayer’s dime and should be fired in droves, one theory goes.

Not true in the McDonnells’ case. Tae Health and Human Resources Secretary William Hazel. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell pushed him, including with late night-emails, to set up meetings to promote Williams and his Anatabloc product.

Hazel responded with not only brave professionalism but common sense. “I wouldn’t put the stuff in my mouth,” he testified. When Williams gave him samples, he didn’t put it down in his disclosure forms because “I didn’t think it had any value.”

Hazel is a serious doctor of medicine, honed by science and reason. Someone like that just isn’t going to be swayed by a business hustler with a private jet, Ferrari, various vacation homes and a gigantic credit limits on his cards.

Other heroes and heroines appear to be some of McDonnell’s staff such as Sarah Scarbrough, former director of the Executive Mansion, who worried about Maureen McDonnell’s “mental capacity” and campaign manager Phil Cox who was upset when Ms. McDonnell pushed Williams’ little pills on Ann Romney, the wife of the GOP’s 2012 presidential candidate.

Somewhat less impressive are other witnesses from Star Scientific, Williams’ former company. Former Chairman Paul Perito claimed that he had no idea just what Williams had given the McDonnells and how deeply he had gotten into  the muck with them.

Last summer, I was spending a lot of time reporting on Star and admit that I could never figure it out. Williams’ seemed like money-losing huckster — someone so over-the-top that he could be easily seen through. Yet the other officers and directors at Star, like Harvard-trained Perito, seemed solid.

Perito nixed McDonnell’s campaign to become a paid board member of Star (she’s hardly qualified) and he seemed stunned when Williams’ told him in 2013 that he’d been interviewed by the FBI and state police. It raises questions about Perito that he didn’t know of all of this much sooner.

Still, many Virginia workers caught up in this farcical mess deserve credit for sticking to their guns and professionalism. Hats off to them.