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Beware of All Enterprises that Require New Clothes, Mr. & Mrs. McDonnell

It’s tough to keep up with the lifestyle of your donors on a government salary.

August 18, 2014

In a courtroom in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, the lurid trial of the ex-Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen has been rumbling along for weeks. The basic issue is did the two conspire to give businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. special privileges (like a reception at the governor’s mansion and other extraordinary help) in exchange for gifts and loans totaling over $177,000. The nub of the issue is did the McDonnells rob the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia of the honest services of their governor through their corrupt behavior.


The McDonnells have raised the defense that they could not have conspired to do anything because their marriage was falling apart. Now in week three of the trial as I write this, their marriage looks like it was intact during the relevant period. What looks like it was in shambles were their personal finances, which would give them (potentially both of them) the motive to get some extra cash flowing through their bank accounts lickety-split.


One interesting feature of the Virginia governorship is that it is a single four year term. Virginia governors cannot stand for reelection. Though they can run for non-consecutive terms. Getting to higher federal office or a plumb position in the private sector has to be the goal for an ambitious Virginia governor. That means if any sitting governor wants to leverage their position to get that next big job, then they only have a short window of time to do it.


One way to make a jump to higher office is being a good fundraiser for the party. And by most accounts Bob McDonnell was just that by running the Republican Governors Association (RGA) from 2011–2012. This may have been why he was short listed as a possible Romney Vice President. Maybe it was because he looks like he was sent by central casting to play a distinguished politician. Who knows?


As governor, McDonnell was paid $175,000 a year, which is actually one the highest paid governorships in the nation. But that wasn’t nearly enough to cover the lifestyle that he and his family apparently wanted. As testimony showed, while living in the Governor’s mansion, the McDonnells had three properties, two of which in Virginia Beach were hemorrhaging money.


Access to big money must have seemed tantalizingly close for Bob McDonnell when he led the Republican Governors Association. During that time, the RGA raked in $100 million and its top 20 donors gave the RGA over $600,000 each. At least as far as we know, he never dipped his hand into that money pot. But what he did do, if prosecutors are right, is sidle up to CEO Jonnie Williams and get loans to keep his real estate investments temporarily afloat. According to testimony in the trial, while he could help the RGA raise $100 million, he couldn’t keep up with the monthly mortgage payments on his properties. It was that bad. And so CEO Williams kicked in loan after loan to get McDonnell over various financial humps.


Meanwhile Maureen was a consultant to a coal foundation and wanted to be placed on its board and on the board of Star Scientific (Jonnie Williams’ company), not presumably out of some burning interest in corporate governance, but rather to pull another salary to help prop up their family’s finances. She wouldn’t be the only wife of a politician seeking a plumb board position. (Think of the wife of former Sen. Phil Gramm, Wendy Gramm, who sat on Enron’s board before it collapsed or Elaine Chao who is married to Sen. Mitch McConnell and sits on News Corp.’s board now).


And then there is a matter of appearances that the couple wanted to maintain. From the outside, the whole financial affair with Williams seems driven by their desire to have a similar lifestyle to the people writing the big checks to the RGA –but all magically on a government salary. Williams provided a taste of this through lavish gifts. Bob wanted the golf clubs and flashy watch. Maureen wanted the clothes and accessories.


One damning detail, Maureen’s chief of staff bought her boss shoes for the inaugural because Ms. McDonnell’s credit card was maxed out. At the point that one cannot afford a pair of shoes, most of us would just wear a pair we already owned. But this was not the McDonnells’ approach to life. Prosecutors allege that some of the money CEO Williams gave the McDonnells was used for credit card bills. So at a time when their finances were in the toilet, they put on airs. In retrospect, they should have heeded the warning of Henry David Thoreau, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”


And at the end of the trial we’ll see whether the jury thinks they crossed the legal line. CEO Williams has already admitted in open court –which he can do because he has immunity from prosecution—that when he filled out forms asking whether he had bribed anyone that he should have said “true.”


The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: AP)