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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. 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.

Comparing Virginia’s First Ladies

 By Peter Galuszka

Military Moms From  Ft. Belvoir Attend Group Baby Shower

Maureen McDonnell

How does Maureen McDonnell define being Virginia’s first spouse? What does she say about other women who are or have been in her role? How does she compare with other First Ladies?

Testimony in the federal corruption trial of Ms. McDonnell and her husband former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has been highly defamatory to her. She’s been characterized as a greedy, deceptive “nutbag” who misled her husband, demanded fine things like designer clothing, and maintained a strange, emotionally close relationship to Jonnie R. Williams, a businessman who gave the McDonnells more than $170,000 in various loans and gifts to gain their help in promoting his products.

In another setting, anything of this, assuming it is true, would be a personal matter. But it isn’t. The fact is that Ms. McDonnell was very much a part of the political process. McDonnell ran for office repeatedly on the theme that he and his wife were religious, family-oriented individuals dedicated to public service. She could have chosen to minimize her role but she did not.

In fact, according to evidence introduced at the trial, she actually sent instructions to state employees pretending that she had the authority of the “Gov” to do the bidding of Williams. And when she traveled with Williams out of state to promote his product Anatabloc, she represented herself as “The First Lady of Virginia” and often had security officers with her at taxpayers expense. In other words, she is fair game for comparisons. Mind you, just a few years ago, this woman could have been a possibility for First Lady of the United States some time down the road.

She grew up mostly in Northern Virginia in a large family parented by civil service workers of the FBI. The former Washington Redskins cheerleader attended community college and worked mostly as a secretarial worker or aide for the FBI and other federal agencies. She and her husband have five children, and besides raising them, she has had a small, part-time business selling beauty and creams and health aids. As First Lady, she ran an initiative to help women and promote wine, veterans benefits and other matters.

The trial, now entering its fourth week, begs questions about what differentiates her background and behavior  with that of other recent First Ladies. I think it is a fair question. None of the others has ever had similar questions about them. I think a review of their backgrounds and accomplishments is the best way to make the point. Here goes:

Dorothy McauliffeDorothy McAuliffe, wife of current Gov. Terry McAuliffe. A graduate of The Catholic University of America and the Georgetown University Law Center, she has practiced securities law and now advocates for children and family issues.

Anne Holton, wife of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. As a child, Anne-Holtonshe and her father, former Gov. Linwood Holton, made national headlines during the civil rights area when they were photographed walking hand-in-hand to a newly integrated Richmond public school. The brave image helped calm tensions over court-ordered integration. She graduated magna cum laude from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and then got a law degree cum laude from Harvard. She was a prominent judge specializing in youth and domestic relations issues and is now Virginia’s Secretary of Education.lisa_collis2

Lisa Collis, wife of former Gov. and U.S. Senator Mark Warner. A graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Texas, she has specialized in health and youth  issues as head of the Collis Warner Foundation.

Roxanne Gatling Gilmore, wife of former Gov. Jim Gilmore. A roxannegildescendant of the man who invented the rapid-fire Gatling gun, Ms. Gilmore is a University of Virginia graduate and has a bachelor’s and master’s degree. A specialist in classical studies she has taught Latin at the high school level and has been a professor in Greek and Roman studies at Randolph Macon College. She oversaw a multimillion makeover of the Executive Mansion and later wrote a book about it.

Susan-AllenSusan Brown Allen, wife of former Gov. and former U.S. Senator George Allen. She is a marketing specialist from Charlottesville who graduated from the University of South Carolina.

With one possible exception, I’d say that Virginia should be proud of its FLOVAs, the security term for First Lady.

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.”

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.

Confessions of the Tic-Tac Man

Jonnie WilliamsBy Peter Galuszka

On afternoon last week, I was leaving the seventh floor courtroom at U.S. District Court  after Judge James Spencer called for a break. Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the prosecution’s star witness against former Gov. and Ms. McDonnell, had been on the stand for hours, playing various roles as remorseful solicitor, confident businessman, and obstructionist witness.

It just so happened that Williams and I were going to cross paths in the crowded outchamber of the courtroom. Without missing a beat, Williams stopped walking, made eye contact with me, and graciously held out his arm to signal that I should pass first.

I have no idea if Williams knew who I am, but the summer before, I had tried repeatedly to interview him for a serious of reports I was writing about Star Scientific, the tobacco company turned dietary supplement that is at the core of the trial against the McDonnells in perhaps the most important ever corruption trial in Virginia history.

Williams, 58, had been on the stand for four days, dressed as always in a shiny, expensive suit, his thinning hair coiffed around a high, bulbous forehead.

He has a strange voice, soft and proper, that sounds at times like an elder Marlon Brando or, without the harshness, Strother Martin, the man who played the cruel prison warden in the Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke.” Either way, Williams does have a remarkable presence and he always seems to be selling, selling, selling something — either Anatabloc, his product that he claimed could do anything from cure Alzheimer’s to MS, or simply to promote  his own persona.

Williams, who has extensive immunity from the government, keeps underlining that his deal that could keep him out of jail, which means he must be honest. Honest means making “mea culpas.” They must sound sincere. When he said he pressured Maureen to get Bob to call his aging father on his 80th birthday, he recalled:  “That cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars to be able to do that,” he said. “The McDonnells were not my personal friends. It was good for my company,” noted Williams, who gave them more than $150,000 in gifts, loans, trips and cash.

That’s one version of Jonnie — pensive, regretful, honest. There was another one as well that came out when defense lawyer William Burck asked him to talk about his background in business. It was ego bait that Williams couldn’t resist.

It all came out — the confident kid from Fredericksburg who went to a little known business college in Rhode Island and came home to sell used cars and then took over a faltering eyeglass shop, learning how to pick up on one entrepreneurial idea and spin it into another.

Name dropping is a critical part of the Williams psyche, showing how impressed Williams was that his keen intellect had attracted helpful personalities far beyond his social kin. He keeps mentioning Johns Hopkins University Medical School and the “very bright” Dr. Frank O’Donnell who somehow came down from Baltimore and met Williams when he was working in the optical business. O’Donnell was a big league ophthalmologist, Williams said, and served as his mentor, even when he moved to the Midwest. Dr. O’Donnell came in with one business deal after another. One helped lead him to making machinery to cure near-sightedness, earning him millions and securing his personal finances.

Perking up during testimony, Williams ticked off medical terms as if he were the head of a medical school department. He also had developed a keen sense of what could and could not be said in good company, sort of like a small town boy of modest background who’s being let into the local country club for the first time.

When he took the McDonnells and a few others to La Grotta, an expensive Italian restaurant in downtown meeting after an Anatabloc session, he picked thousands of dollars’ worth of wine and informed the courtroom and jury that it was bad form to let your guests know if it’s $50 a bottle vintage of $500 a bottle. Of course, when he picked out the Louis XIII cognac for his male model friend, the McDonnells and some of their staff at a New York eatery in 2009, he was proud to reveal it cost $5,000.

“I really didn’t like it all that much but some people do,” he said. He also didn’t really like the Ferrari that he made a big effort to drive to Smith Mountain Lake in July 2011 so McDonnell could drive it at Maureen’s request while vacationing for free at Williams waterfront house. Williams says he prefers his Toyota Camry.

This same snobbery constantly extends to the medical and business hot shots who were helping build the idea that Williams’ use of anatabine, a substance found in tobacco, had remarkable curative powers. Jonnie was more than willing to tell you all about it, over and over, in his slow, calm, methodical voice.

Maureen McDonnell, who is being set up as the Fall Girl by her own lawyers, bought into the Williams’ spiel, big time. McDonnell’s professional staff, including Phil Cox and Jasen Eige, testified that they were deeply worried about Williams and kept on telling the governor to limit his engagement.

Smitten by Williams, Maureen kept pushing Jonnie and his miracle supplements, somehow overlooking the fact that there hadn’t been clinical trials on it and that Star Scientific had lost $230 million over the past decade (she still bought stock anyway despite Williams testimony that he told her it was a bad idea).

Rank and file Virginia researchers, whose imprimatur Williams so badly wanted, also were suspicious. When he’d show up pushing pills as samples, they called him the “Tic Tac Man.”

Cantor’s Self-Serving Special Election Scheme

cantor By Peter Galuszka

It looks like a small group of the Virginia Republicans elite has once again hatched a plot behind closed doors to manipulate elected politics without input from voters.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, the victim of a surprising defeat in a June 10 Republican primary, has come up with a self-serving scheme to resign Aug.18 and finagle a special election Nov. 4 to pick his successor. The special election would be held along with a regularly scheduled one.

Normally, opposing candidates Republican David Brat and Democrat Jack Trammel, would routinely face election that day. With Cantor’s proposal, the winner of the special election for the 7th Congressional District seat would be able to take office immediately, instead of having to wait for usual matriculation of the other 434 Congressmen in January.

This is a back-door, move-to-the-head-of-the-class scheme. Presumably, the winner would be Brat who, taking office in November, would be placed ahead of other Congressional newcomers when it comes to coveted committee assignments. Good for the GOP. Bad for Democrats.

For Cantor, of course, it is a Big Win. Since his unexpected and earth-shaking defeat, the 51-year-old has been seen at such posh places as the Hampton is on the tip of Long Island schmoozing with Big Money. Cantor does have an advanced degree from Columbia in real estate finance and his wife was once a New York securities trader. Big Finance, along with Big Pharma and Big Managed Care, has been one of his biggest sources of election funds.

Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political expert, by turns thought Cantor’s idea “generous” but also noted ”it’s highly probable that he has a deal in the works for his post-Congress life, and he’s eager to get it started,” Sabato was quoted as saying.

As might have been expected, Cantor made his announcement in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, his lapdog newspaper. Editors gushed that his announcement “features an extraordinary column by an extraordinary human being.”

It shows extraordinary cluelessness as well. Cantor, the Main Street Republicans and the TD’s club of Richmond elites don’t seem to understand that it is their very exclusivity that helped do Cantor in and give an upstart like Brat the edge.

Consider a cover story package that I co-wrote in the Chesterfield Monthly, one of the Richmond area’s up-and-coming publications. I found that it wasn’t just that Cantor ignored his district that did him in – it was a putsch by some rather annoyed Libertarians of the traditional ilk and small government moderates plus the Tea Party.

Leaders of the “malcontents” were lawyer Patrick McSweeney and Tea Party leader Jamie Radtke who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2012. In the “Bull Elephant” blog, Radtke compared Cantor and his Confederates as “mobsters” running around and snuffing out dissent among local conservatives.

Brat himself was ultra pissed off a couple of years back when he wanted to get the Henrico County GOP nod to run and replace Bill Janis. But, functioning as the old Soviet Politburo might have, a tiny group of Republican elders decided that the candidate would be Peter Farrell, the young son of utility powerhouse chieftain Tom Farrell of Dominion. In other words, it wasn’t exactly a day for waving the stars and stripes of Democracy. It was pure, Big League, Big Business inside diktat that could have taken place behind the crenelated walls of the Kremlin.

They didn’t give Brat a chance,”analyst Bob Holsworth told me. “That gave Brat the interest in taking on this Don Quixote-type campaign.

Now we get another closed-door deal. Hopefully, voters, conservative and liberal, will fire back.

Williams: How to Reach the High and Mighty

Photo by the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Photo by the Richmond Times-Dispatch

By Peter Galuszka

The McDonnell corruption trial has its high and low moments. One theme stands out: the trial is a guidebook of how to gain broach and compromise the power elite of Virginia politicians, in this case the Republicans.

Here are a few takeaways:

  1. Want to break in? Having a private jet is a must, testified former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams Sr., also the government’s star witness with immunity from prosecution. By offering the jet to politicians and aides, you a captive audience for the length of the flight. Williams said he got up to six hours of almost undivided attention from Robert McDonnell when he and the former governor were flying in his plane across country from a campaign event with the GOP’s Meg Whitman, then running for governor of California in the Fall of 2010. That’s when they started talking in earnest about promoting Jonnie’s products. Richmond’s odd location is a problem with travel. Having your own plane helps the pooh-bahs bypass “ RIC, IAD, and DCA and fly directly to GOP.”

  2. Republicans like living large. Big names impress. Just after McDonnell won the governorship in 2009, he and his wife meet at the Four Season Hotel in Manhattan. Williams was there with his buddy, high fashion male model Brad Kroenig. During that meeting Ms. McDonnell thought it would be a great idea if she could get an Oscar de la Renta dress for the upcoming inaugural ball. Williams bought drinks, but not any drink. He blew $5,000 on a bottle a Louis XIII cognac. Asked by a defense lawyer why he did so, Williams replied, “I actually don’t care for it all that much but some other seem to.”
  3. Looking for funding under strange circumstances? Somehow Virginia’s Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission always seems to pop up. On his cross-country trip with Williams, McDonnell suggested it as a source of research funding for Williams’ Anatabloc dietary supplement., Williams said. Apparently the plan was to get the University of Virginia to ask for research money, keeping Star and the governor a step or two removed. McDonnell encouraged Williams to contact Jerry Kilgore, a former attorney general and partner at McGuire Woods. Jerry, who later became Williams’ lawyer, has a brother, Terry, who is head of the tobacco commission. In an unrelated matter, the tobacco commission was involved with the sudden and strange resignation this summer of state Sen. Phil Puckett just as a key vote on Medicaid expansion was to happen. The plan was for Puckett to take a top-paying, sinecure-type job at the tobacco commission but it didn’t work out once it was publicized.

As the trial continues, there may be other tips for success. I will pass them along as soon as I can.

One Very Sad Day In Court

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

One literally could have heard a pin drop in U.S. District Court in Richmond today.

William Burck, lawyer for  Maureen McDonnell, said in his opening argument in a trial that Virginia’s Former First Lady who has been indicted no 14 corruption charges along with her former governor husband was “collateral damage” in a deeply troubled marriage. She had developed a “crush” on the businessman who had given her and her husband more than $150,000 in loans, gifts and cash.

“Their marriage had broken down,” Burck said. “They were barely on speaking terms,” Burck said. Ms. McDonnell was angry and frustrated that her husband had been working 16-hour days in public service for 20 plus years and had little to show for it. They had five children. Big debt. Bob wasn’t paying attention to her.

As John L. Brownlee, McDonnell’s lawyer, said, McDonnell’s hard public service work “took a toll on his family and a terrible toll on his wife. He was not nearly as successful as a husband. He tried to keep from the public the most painful aspects of his marriage. He never humiliated her. He never scorned her.”

In pops Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a smooth-talking entrepreneur pushing a new anti-aging cream made in part from tobacco plants (although his firm, Star Scientific, had lost a couple hundred million over the previous decade.) Brownlee described the star witness for the prosecution as a “master manipulator.”

“This marriage broke apart and an outsider, another man, would invade and poison their marriage,” Brownlee said.

At one point, Maureen was said to have “hated” Bob who wrote a lengthy email to her trying to reconcile. In fact, Brownlee said, the Governor will read the email when he goes on the jury stand during the trial that is expected to last at least five weeks. When McDonnell sent the email, however, “that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests.”

One could get snarky about this seemingly over-the-top soap opera. But no one in the courtroom seemed to be smirking. It is strange enough to be at a trial like this in a place like Virginia that considers itself above the petty corruption that plagues other states. It is even stranger to hear such excruciatingly personal and painful things about the state’s top former executive and his wife.

It could be that a “throw Maureen under the bus” strategy may work to get both of them off. After all, she wasn’t a public official and could do what she wanted as far as gifts. The prosecution’s opening statement drew a rather detailed and concise outline of just what and when the McDonnells solicited Williams’ largesse, right down to the “thank you” emails when money arrived in the bank to Maureen’s cell phone snap shot of Bob wearing slick, wraparound sunglasses while driving Williams’ Ferrari.

Giving the McDonnell’s the benefit of the doubt, I have to say I’ve heard this kind of story before among long-married couples suffering through middle age as their children are ready to fly away. Their stories may not be dramatic but I’ve got to admit that Bob McDonnell never seemed to exhibit such grabby behavior before.

This raises another tough question. What should “public service” be and how much should it take from one’s private life. More importantly, why can’t it support men and women who pursue it? Should it be only for the rich?

McDonnell slogged through relatively low-paying jobs like the General Assembly, Attorney General and Governor. He had five kids and a wife who seemed very freaked out by being First Lady – a role she apparently never wanted. She came from a Northern Virginia civil service family that didn’t exactly have a grand disposable income.

Consider two other Virginia governors –former and current. Mark Warner, now U.S. Senator, is rich from his telecommunications investments made years ago. At one point he was said to be worth a couple hundred million dollars. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, another former businessman, is likewise wealthy but probably not as rich as Warner.

Should these people be in office because they are rich? Should public service be available only to those with great portfolios? What would Thomas Jefferson say?