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

by James A. Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


14 responses to “The Prosecution Closes on a Weak Note”

  1. Why does it matter what the precise financials of the McDonnells were or were not?

    We don’t know the personal finances of other Govs… except of the Statement of Economic Interests.

    We don’t know about their (previous GOvs) credit scores or credit cards and why should that matter in a trial that is about whether or not you were engaging in a relationship with someone giving you money and gifts?

    Some of the biggest bribery crimes had nothing to do with people’s personal finances – good or bad – they just were willing to engage in relationships that involved more money.

    Do we really care – or should we really care – that Bob and Maureen were “driven” to that relationship with Williams by financial difficulties – and that would make it more acceptable? How would you feel if they did this and were not in financial difficulties?

    there are two competing narratives here – and one of them that you now are giving is that perhaps they were not in dire straights – how can you be in serious financial trouble and have a good credit score – and no – don’t tell me that it had not caught up – I see changes in my score a month after a transaction sometimes.

    Myself – I do not care what the McDonnells finances were – I care about the fact that they were getting cash and gifts from an entrepreneur who wanted the state to help him advance his product.

    To suggest that you’d change your view about this based on finding out more about their finances – is – .. a bit bizarre .. at least to me.

    this is sorta like saying you might not find someone guilty for robbing a bank because they needed the money to pay their bills so you’d want to know more about the nature of their finances to determine if they were guilty of robbery?

    geeze louise.

  2. The McDonnells-were-driven-by-financial-desperation narrative is not mine, its the prosecution’s. Why do we care about the details? Because it’s the prosecution’s narrative. If the prosecution’s narrative regarding the motive to conspire with Jonnie Williams doesn’t hold water, it’s hard to convict.

  3. billsblots Avatar

    What I did learn from my time in law school at a location which is now a parking lot over the right field wall of the Detroit Tiger’s Comerica Park is that a legal conviction requires establishing evidence that is believed to be true and factual beyond a reasonable doubt; evidence that proves that the accused committed the narrow and well-defined acts that constitute the elements of the crime. If 100% of the jurors (or majority in some types of cases) in a jury trial, or judge in non-jury trial, do not believe the prosecution has provided such evidence that the elements of the crime were committed beyond a reasonable doubt, then the accused must be found not guilty.

    Typically most people do not know specifically what the laws are under which the accused is being prosecuted and further what the acts and elements of that law are that must be proven.

    That certainly appears to be the case in reading the comments on this blog. Indeed the laws should reflect the sensibilities of a community while at the same time protecting citizens against frivolous and trumped up charges that could conveniently silence political opponents. This concept of protection of the individual citizen against a vindictive state with all its inherent and nearly unlimited power lies at the heart of the founding of this country and our legal system, as convoluted as it has become sometimes.

    There appears to be a lot of smarmy and questionable actions and decisions by presumed intelligent and well-educated people in this case. Those alone are not enough to warrant a conviction of criminal charges no matter that some of the commenters on this blog had already convicted the former Governor “of some kind of corruption” before any charges had been read and evidence provided. Stench doesn’t equal automatic guilt.

    The judge will charge the jury as to what exactly the law is, what elements the prosecution must have proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and based on their interpretation of the evidence presented how they must decide the guilt or innocence on the various charges. I’ll just wait and see what happens and suggest everyone do the same.

    For a change, rather than tirades reflecting the automatic presumption of guilt because some poster may intensely dislike the Tea Party and every Republican, how about we have an intelligent and unemotional discussion of what the actual law is and whether the elements of the crime have been proven or not? That is what the jury will eventually do and some will likely be confounded by the results of this trial one way or another because they have always been reacting from an emotional standpoint, not from a legal perspective, which is all that matters in court.

  4. Reprising Johnny Cochran:

    If the loan app was true, the prosecution is through.

    No quid pro quo means guilty is “no”.

    If the governor didn’t know you must let him go.

    In a state with no laws you must retract your claws.

    If Williams is full of sh** you must acquit.

    Holder’s a dope and his case has no hope.

    1. keep your day job!


      in general, I agree – although to say that Williams got “nothing” for his gifts is not exactly precisely the truth because he did get more than any old non-gift-giving schmuck would have got – and just because Williams got a piss-poor return on his investment – does not mean he got bupkus.

      he got access – and was able to pitch his product and even get Maureen to pitch his product – even at state functions.

      was it worth it? well, no, that’s not the question. The question is – did he get something for his gifts even if you think it was “not enough”.

      but the trial metric has to include what the McDonnells have lost even if they beat the rap… on technicalities and weird reasoning jurors like Bacon.

      did Williams engage in a quid-pro-quo behavior and did the Gov and Maureen do things to help him?

      If there are a couple on the jury who believe Williams really did not get enough for his money or poor old Bob and Maureen were driven to bad behavior by crappy finances that just befell them out of the blue.. then we’re going to get a hung jury… and the McDonnells will walk and someone, somewhere will offer McDonnell a job suitable to folks of Williams character and I’ll be a hornswoggled son of a wood-pecker if McDonnell ends up becoming the de-facto head of the RPV and campaigns for Ed Gillespie as a “values” GOP wannabe.

      1. The key learning from this case is Jonnie Williams saying that the McDonnells were not his friends. It was just business. That is perhaps the only thing he has said that I fully believe.

        It’s always “just business”. Every Virginia politician who takes a gift worth more than a coffee cup or a logo pen is “just business” to the gift giver. They all think they are going to get something from the politician. And if the politician wants to keep getting gifts then the politician better provide something in return. After all, it’s “just business”. No governor gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts over his 4 year term without giving something back to the gift givers.

        Is this illegal? Sometimes yes but mostly no. Virginia’s laws are heinously weak. That’s intentional. Our political class likes the cozy relationship between gift givers and themselves. A gift giver wants more access than any ordinary citizen can get? Sure. A gift giver wants a politician to change his or her vote in return for the gift? Probably not. But … a gift giver that uses the extra access to argue and debate for their position while ordinary citizens don’t have the access? Sure.

        How do you think all of these industry and company specific tax breaks get awarded? You know, the ones which last forever. Some gift giver with extra special access uses that extra special access to start earwhigging politicians about how much good these tax breaks will be for Virginia. Who pays for these tax breaks? The ordinary citizens who don’t have enough money to become gift givers who enjoy special access from our political class.

        In the real world, neither people nor businesses give politicians gifts without expecting something valuable in return.

        After all, it’s “just business”.

        1. Hey , aren’t you the guy who thinks Va Govs should have TWO Terms?

          with your kind of thinking – every penny that is documented in VPAP is a de-facto bribe – right?

          and in a state (like Virginia) which premises it’s ethics almost totally on disclosure so that the gifts themselves are not limited – but they must be disclosed so voters can decide – you’re okay with undisclosed transactions as long as you have your wife do them?

          bribery being fine as long as it is conducted by proxies and not the Gov directly?

          DJ – you’re all over the map on this. It was not that long ago that you were saying that Virginia was/is one of the most corrupt states in the union – and now you are saying that bribery is essentially okay if the wife does it.

          go figure.

          ” authorities proposed that then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell plead guilty to one felony fraud charge that had nothing to do with corruption in office and his wife would avoid charges altogether. The governor rejected the offer, ”

          so, we’ve gone from McDonnell throwing his wife under the bus to Maureen was running wild and doing things behind the Gov’s back to – ” it’s okay if Maureen did things that if the Gov did them would constitute fraud and corruption”.

          you’re defending this, right

          so now.. we’ve moved on from the first excuses to – All GOvs do this and it’s no big deal – so now you’re accusing Kaine and Warners wifes of doing what Maureen did – to protect their husbands from charges of fraud and corruption…

          but we need to give our GOvs two terms in office…??

          now, that’s what I call a “struggle”.

  5. Avatar

    Sessoms says loans were Maureen’s so disclosure not necessary.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Ya gotta love Bacon, fishmonger of the red herrings.

    Jimbo, the issue isn’t the size of the McD’s card debt. Lots of Americans have massive credit card debt and much of it was foisted on them by the finance firms pre 2008 crash. You seem to be saying that if Governor Bob had an OK credit rating that exonerates him. Therefore, you won’t have to take back four plus years of flacking for the guy with some admirable exceptions.

    Credit bills or no — real estate problems aside — why did the McDs’ get so involved with a huckster like Jonnie W for so long? There’s no evidence that the Mcds took anything like the sizeable gifts from JW that they from anyone else. And Time Kaine’s $18K blue water getaway, he’s not exactly on trial here.What did Kaine do in exchange? His quid pro quo?

    Jw says he lathered on the goodies because he wanted something from the Mcds. The evidence is, they tried to help. The smoking gun isn’t that he didn’t in fact get much, but it is the fact he gave over-the-top gifts and the Mcds were obviously pushing him. Can you tell me that Dominion or Altria or MeadWestvaco was so personally involved with the Gov.. other than with legal campaign contributions? Could be. No evidence like JW’s..
    So you are going to spin this the way you want since you are a closet Republican and spent years backing the guy. I will admit you came down hard on McD for his transportation plan. You showed integrity and guts and I admire you for it. Otherwise, you and he were as thick as fleas and since Virginia has never had a corruption case like this before and since you have not worked outside of Virginia, I understand that this is an education for you. I understand.

    1. Peter, I actually agree with a lot of what you say. (Other than the “flakking for McDonnell part. If you agree with McAuliffe’s Medicaid policy, does that mean you’re flakking for him?)

      There’s just one little difference. I can distinguish between behavior that is unacceptable on ethical grounds and behavior that is illegal. You can’t. In the end, I think this case will come down to how the judge defines the legal issues to the jury. Did either Bob or Maureen McDonnell perform “official acts” that benefited Star Scientific? That largely hinges on one’s understanding of an “official act.” Did Bob commit a felony when he omitted information about his debt to Williams in his loan applications? That hinges upon whether it’s a crime to omit information at an early stage of the loan-application process if you amend it later in the process.

      Determining legal guilt and innocence is different from determining right from wrong. Most Virginians agree that what McDonnell did was wrong. The guy couldn’t get elected dog catcher.

      Determining legal guilt and innocence under existing law is different from opining what the law *should* be. In that regard, the General Assembly still has a lot of work to do.

      1. ” But prosecutors showed no interest, according to people familiar with the conversation. Instead, months later, authorities proposed that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell plead guilty to one felony fraud charge that had nothing to do with corruption in office, and his wife would avoid charges ”

        Let’s presume for the sake of argument that the prosecutors did not even have enough to convict on that one charge (if the opinion of the McDonnells and their legal team) – so the McDonnells were willing to go forward even though they knew the revelations to come out would effectively ruin their reputation.

        If you were accused of something you felt you were not guilty of but they said they’d drop all but one charge but you’d have to admit you were guilty of that one – would you?

        If the prosecution ended on a weak note – one might presume that a legal team of 20 would have some rockem, sockem power plays coming back.

        but the best I can see at this point – is trying to say that the McDonnells did nothing that prior Govs did not also do – something I think if fraught with risk that even at best, will only smudge prior gov rather than make the McDonnells look good.

        But I’m like Peter – I’m quite sure Warner and Kaine have credit scores, loans, credit card debt – probably multiple mortgages.. who knows.. but what would any of that have to do with hobnobbing with a guy promoting a product and providing gifts and loans – as business arrangement?

        it stinks to high heaven and the idea that it’s “ok” because Maureen was the Gov – just reeks.

        If it comes out that Kaine and Warner were doing the same thing – Kaine and Warner join the McDonnells at the gallows – not rescue them from it

        You know – the Tea Party is a joke. Here they are running around talking about bad govt – and not a peep from them on this.

      2. “In that regard, the General Assembly still has a lot of work to do.”

        You are right about that and it’s Bill Howell and the Republicans in the General assembly who are blocking any progress at real ethics reform.

    2. “What did Kaine do in exchange? His quid pro quo?”

      He reappointed the guy who gave him the free vacation to a prestigious state wide position.

      Was it a quid pro quo? Who knows – but Kaine definitely helped the guy get something he wanted.

  7. in terms of gifts, I just want to point out that McDonnell also disclosed gifts:

    you can do the same query for Kaine – and you’ll see that both of them had a plethora of gifts – AND – they DID disclose them.

    Now tell me WHY these other gifts like golf clubs, and loans were not also disclosed along side the other ones that McDonnell disclosed.

    why did he selectively disclose gifts and not disclose others?

    that might well be a prosecution question asked if Tim Kaine’s gifts are made a focus of the defense.

Leave a Reply