A Family Affair

by Bella Rum

pd_bob_mcdonnell_text_watch_2_kb_140801_4x3_992“All politics is local.” — Byron Price (1932) – Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (1935)

I know there’s a lot going on in the world, but we’ve had a little drama in our own neck of the woods. You may have seen it on the news. Our former governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were found guilty on corruption charges on Thursday. The Governor was convicted of eleven out of fourteen corruption counts, and Mrs. McDonnell was found guilty on nine counts and obstruction of justice.

The federal government brought the charges. There’s a dispute about that. Some think they did the right thing. McDonnell supporters think they should have stayed out of it. Either way, the State of Virginia declined to charge the governor.

This has been an ongoing soap opera in Virginia for over a year. The McDonnell’s accepted over $165,000 in undisclosed gifts from questionable business man (McDonnell’s daughter called him a crook) Johnnie R. Williams, Sr – CEO of Star Scientific. They accepted vacations, shopping sprees, loans and even access to a vacation home. And there were enticing details. Johnnie Williams shared a $3,000 (some say $5000) bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac with the McDonnells on Labor Day 2012, and he took Mrs. McDonnell to NYC on a shopping spree, and then there was the $6500 Rolex watch.

Though the McDonnells’ acceptance of such lavish gifts was political suicide, unbelievably, it is  not illegal in Virginia. Our laws regarding personal gifts to governors is probably the most relaxed in the country. Just about anything goes in these parts, but the line is crossed when access to the governor’s office is promised or given in exchange for gifts, loans or other favors. The Governor hosted events for Star Scientific at the Governor’s mansion and appeared in photographs with its product. The Governor claims he only did what he would do for any Virginia company. The jury did not believe him. And that is the problem with accepting such elaborate gifts. Anything a governor does that benefits the gift-giver is suspect. The line is blurred.

The disturbing part of all of this is how this family was shredded by the governor’s choice of defense. He was offered a plea deal in which he would only be charged on one count that would carry a short prison term (which he would have completed by now), and his wife would have been completely spared. He declined. Now he is facing up to thirty years in prison.

McDonnell’s defense claimed their marriage was in such shambles, and their communication so poor that they never could have conspired together, that Maureen had a crush on Johnnie Williams, and she was unbalanced, unfaithful (at least in her heart for lusting after Johnnie Williams) and deceptive, and that she had accepted all the gifts without Gov. McDonnell’s knowledge. The defense portrayed him as naive, trusting and unaware. His wife did all of it without his knowledge – the old she-made-me-do-it defense. This defense has been around at least since the Salem witch trials.

The trial was a family affair. Maureen was depicted as a woman with a fragile grip on mental health. She stoically looked on as her family told their version of her story. McDonnell talked about their troubled marriage on the stand, and read an email that he had written to Maureen during troubled times. The oldest daughter testified that her mother had “a mild obsession” with Johnnie Williams. Gov. McDonnell’s sister testified that Maureen had two sides: one sweet and tender; the other manipulative, unpredictable and deceitful. Even the first lady’s special assistant turned on her, saying that Mrs. McDonnell seemed, “enamored with Johnnie Williams, infatuated.” She testified that the first lady would rant and rave in the private quarters of the governor’s mansion while the governor tried to read the newspaper or watch television news. “He usually just tuned her out.” It was all too personal and painful to share, but share they did, and while impassively watching the parade of witnesses, Mrs. McDonnell took the brunt of it. It was a slow-motion video of a family setting itself on fire. In the end, I don’t think many people believed it was real.

When the verdict came down, all I could think was how does Gov. McDonnell feel now about that plea bargain he so cavalierly declined. There were times during the trial when McDonnell looked hopeful and times when he looked desperate, but when he left the courthouse on Thursday, he was simply a beaten man – at least for the moment. I think most Virginians were exhausted when the whole circus packed up its dog and pony show on Thursday. No one looked good in this, and I don’t think anyone in Virginia felt good about it. This was the first time a Virginia governor was indicted and the first time one was found guilty.

Gov. McDonnell could be sentenced to thirty years in January but he will not, but I doubt he will get the minimum. There will be an appeal, and we’ll see how that goes. I hope this will change Virginia’s laws about gifts and loans to governors. They can’t seem to govern themselves.