A mere 10 days after leaving office, former governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, have been indicted on 14 felony counts related to their acceptance of gifts while Robert McDonnell was governor of Virginia.
While the McDonnells are innocent unless and until proven guilty, he has most definitely disgraced himself and embarrassed the citizens of Virginia he was elected to represent. In what is referenced as devastating detail, the 43-page federal indictment outlines the cozy relationship former Governor and Mrs. McDonnell had with Jonnie R. Williams, chief executive of a struggling former cigarette manufacturer that now sells dietary supplements. The indictment notes repeated examples of cash, vacations, gifts, loans, private jets, vacation houses and baubles swapped for official access and favors.
“We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!” Maureen McDonnell wrote in an e-mail to an aide to the then-governor-elect in December 2009, after the aide expressed concerns about an offer by Williams to buy her inaugural gown. “I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.” This was surely a cry for help by the then first lady-to-be.
Over a two-year period ending in March of last year, the indictment says, the McDonnells participated in a scheme to use the governor’s official position to enrich themselves and their family members “by soliciting and obtaining payments, loans, gifts, and other things of value” from Mr. Williams. In return, the McDonnells conspired to “legitimize, promote, and obtain research studies” for Star Scientific products, the indictment alleges.
Some of these examples include, but are not limited to:
On April 11, 2011, Maureen McDonnell called Jonnie Williams and asked him to take her on a shopping trip to purchase an Oscar de la Renta dress for a political event at the Union League Club in New York two days later and promised to get Williams seated next to McDonnell at the event. Williams accompanied Mrs. McDonnell on the trip and spent in excess of $19,000 not only for a dress for that event but also for her daughter’s wedding and her own wedding anniversary. Mr. Williams was seated next to Governor McDonnell at the event at the Union League Club on April 13, 2011.
On May 2, 2011, Maureen McDonnell arranged a private meeting at the governor’s mansion for Williams, during which she explained that she and her husband were having “severe financial difficulties.” She asked Williams for a $50,000 loan and said she could assist Star Scientific but needed his financial help. Additional financial assistance was also requested. Williams indicated he would need a private audience with the governor, which he received. The governor asked to repay the loan at a 5% interest rate. Mr. Williams indicated there was no need to draw up any formal loan paperwork.
From May 9-June 1, 2011: Receiving checks from Williams and promoting his company: A member of the governor’s staff indicated May 9 that the staff was considering plans to have McDonnell visit a Star Scientific promotional event on June 1 in Florida. “[T]he person inviting the Governor is a good friend so I would like to be as responsive as possible,” the staff member wrote. A staff member told the company that the McDonnells’ daughter’s wedding, the same week as the corporate event, would make the trip impossible.
“I’m so sorry this won’t work out! What else can we do to fix this?” the staff member wrote.
On May 17, Maureen McDonnell scheduled herself to attend the promotional event.
On May 23, Williams had his office assistant write two checks, for $50,000 and for $15,000 as a wedding gift, and delivered them in person to the governor’s mansion.
On June 1, Maureen McDonnell attended the company’s promotional event in Sarasota, Fla., which was also attended by numerous Star Scientific investors, and announced that she was offering the governor’s mansion for the official product launch of Anatabloc.
Overall, the McDonnell’s alleged accepted cash, loans and gifts totaling at least $165,000.
McDonnell, 59, is the first governor ever to face criminal charges in Virginia, a state that has prided itself on a history of clean and ethical politics, and the charges will probably accelerate a push for the legislature to tighten state ethics laws.
This federal indictment marks a stunning crash for a politician who was considered for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 2012 and who, just a year ago, was considered a credible prospective candidate for president.
No matter how this ends for the McDonnells, it should send a clear message to the Virginia General Assembly the need for a very tight state ethics law. Further, it should remind us all that anything that we feel must be hidden from the public is probably not a choice we should make.