Friday, September 5, 2014

Bob McDonnell buys the farm

THE COST of a galaxy of gifts and considerations enjoyed by former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen — no-doc loans, trips on private jets, shopping sprees at Bergdorf Goodman, a loaner Ferrari, chicken-dinner catering for a daughter’s wedding, and an engraved silver Rolex watch — was reportedly more than $175,000, in purely financial terms. But in other ways, as we found out Thursday, the cost of those benevolences was higher than that. A lot higher.

McDonnell, once seemingly the heir apparent to a glittering political future, was found guilty on corruption charges on Thursday, capping a 27-day trial that was as personally embarrassing as it was politically disastrous for the first governor in the history of the Commonwealth to be charged and convicted of a crime.

A seven-man, five-woman jury found McDonnell guilty of 11 of the 13 corruption charges against him. His wife was found guilty of nine of 13: eight corruption charges and one count of obstruction of justice. Tears flowed from the family as the verdicts were read.

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“This was just a difficult and disappointing day for the commonwealth and its citizens,” said U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente, speaking after the trial, as reported by The Washington Post. “Public service frequently requires sacrifice and almost always requires financial sacrifice. When public officials turn to financial gain in exchange for official acts, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.”

In January, the couple was charged in a 14-count federal indictment with accepting the six-figure bling from businessman Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., the former CEO of Star Scientific Inc., a diet-supplement company.

And it didn’t stop with them. A Washington Post interactive — something that resembles a wiring diagram for an electrical grid — illustrates just how much corruption was truly a family affair. Apparently, everyone in Clan McDonnell bellied up to the trough; the couple’s five adult children received gifts from golf trips to private plane trips.

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AS IF THE trial outcome weren’t bad enough, spectators were treated to what must have been a new low in defense strategy. Throughout the trial, McDonnell’s attorneys claimed that any collusion between the former governor and his wife wasn’t possible because they weren’t on speaking terms. The Post’s Eugene Robinson, in an Aug. 21 column, detailed McDonnell’s brazen display of wife-shaming:

“It has been clear for some time that McDonnell’s strategy for winning acquittal amounted to what could be called the “crazy wife” defense. But only when he took the stand did it become apparent how thoroughly he intended to humiliate the “soul mate” he still claims to love. ...

“McDonnell testified that Maureen McDonnell was so volatile that the entire staff at the governor’s mansion signed a petition threatening to quit if her behavior didn’t improve. ‘She would yell at me,’ he told the court. ‘She would tell me I was taking staff’s side, that I didn’t know what was really going on over there.’”

For the 27 days of the trial, Maureen McDonnell sat in court, silent as the Sphinx; then when it was over, she left the courthouse from inside a private car — emerging from under the bus where her husband had pushed her.

Sentencing is set for Jan. 6.

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It’s all a big comedown for the man once hailed as the golden boy of Republican politics, his name actually bruited as a possible vice presidential contender as recently as the 2012 White House race.

Everything was once so promising. Winning office in November 2009, McDonnell would come to make some effort to break with Republican orthodoxy. In May 2013, McDonnell decided to restore the voting rights of non-violent felons released from prison, a bold conservative reach for the center, and for minority voters, in a state with a corrosive racial past. “Once somebody has done their probation, parole or incarceration and they’ve paid all their fines and costs, and don’t have any pending charges, we’re gonna automatically restore their voting rights, and their civil and constitutional rights,” he said on MSNBC.

To that point, McDonnell had restored the voting rights for more than 4,800 felons, more than any other governor in Virginia history. It was the kind of centrist overture that positioned him well as a possible presidential contender in 2016.

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MCDONNELL’S gesture didn’t go unnoticed. In a May 2013 interview, NAACP President Ben Jealous told me that “[w]hat makes this courageous is that he did not take politics into consideration. This is clearly about principle, he believes in the principle of redemption. In the past, we’ve met with Democratic leaders, but we also sat down with Republican leaders who share the same conviction, and believe in the sacredness of the right to redemption.”

[McDonnell] put principle above partisan self-interest, and that’s what so remarkable about this action,” Jealous told me. “It’s a very big deal.”

That same year, Virginia enjoyed a 5.2 percent unemployment rate — the 10th lowest in the nation — an increasingly diverse demographic; a home ownership rate and median household income higher than the national average; and a growing reputation as a high-tech hub, with AOL, Apple, Boeing, Verizon and other companies placing regional offices in the state.

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Not that the governor didn’t have his blind spots, the same ones consistent with others in the Republican Party. In April 2010, he issued a proclamation celebrating Confederate History Month at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans -- reviving a tradition that had been discontinued in two previous (Democratic) administrations, and doing it without even mentioning slavery, the raison d’etre of the Confederacy.

In 2012 he was all set to sign into law SB484, a controversial measure passed by the state’s House of Delegates and Senate, requiring any woman seeking a first-trimester abortion in Virginia to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedure to “determine gestational age.”

The onerous bill was widely condemned as nothing less than an attempt at state-sanctioned rape. After a torrent of criticism from protesters and activists, McDonnell and Virginia Republicans revised the bill, opting instead to require women to undergo the less invasive procedure of abdominal ultrasound.

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NOW, OF course, it’s all over but the sentencing. And the tragic irony.

In the May 2013 press release announcing his felons’ rights reform, McDonnell observed that “America is a land of opportunity and second chances, a land where we cherish and protect our constitutional rights. For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes, they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights.”

It’s a very safe bet that the Commonwealth of Virginia’s highest-profile felon had no expectation of being the object of his own gubernatorial largesse when he wrote that, one year and four months ago. Back when everything was so promising.

Image credits: McDonnell top: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post. Check image: Introduced as evidence at trial. Maureen McDonnell: Mark Wilson/Getty Images. Bob and Maureen McDonnell: Steve Helber/Associated Press. McDonnell lower image: © 2010 Gage Skidmore. Vaginal probe illustration: Maddow Blog, MSNBC.

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