If the charges detailed in the 14-count indictment of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, are true, then this is clearly an avaricious and entitled couple with serious boundary problems. But does that mean they are criminals?
McDonnell has acknowledged accepting lavish gifts and a loan from Jonnie Williams, a pharmaceutical businessman who was pushing a dietary supplement which had not yet received FDA approval. These weren't what most of us would consider normal gift-giving among friends. They included paying a $15,000 catering bill for the wedding of the McDonnell's daughter, a Rolex watch and a five-figure shopping spree for Maureen McDonnell in New York. The first lady, it seemed, needed dresses. In one of the more damning email exchange that emerged in the indictment, Mrs. McDonnell told a staffer that William had agreed to pay for a designer dress for her to wear at the inauguration. When the staffer pushed back, suggesting that the gift would at least appear improper, McDonnell shot back, writing:
I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget. I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I'm charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.
Such cries of poverty (brought, apparently, through some highly leveraged and ill-timed property purchases by the couple) might not play out so well with the so-called 47 percent. Why the McDonnells were so broke, given that they lived in government housing and Bob McDonnell had a good job, and why Maureen McDonnell couldn't just wear an old dress or borrow one – these are questions that are hard to understand. And Maureen McDonnell didn't make things better when she allegedly tried to cover her tracks, pretending she had borrowed the dresses instead of having them paid for by Williams.
It's all very distasteful. But Bob McDonnell has a strong argument when he says he didn't do anything illegal.
It's acceptable under Virginia law for politicians to accept gifts, if they are properly reported. And while the McDonnells both did things aimed at helping Williams' business (such as having a launch party at the mansion and endorsing the supplement), it's very, very hard to prove there was a quid pro quo. McDonnell did not push legislation to help Williams or, according to the indictment, participate in some direct and obvious payback.
Virginia might consider changing its gift rules for elected officials (though one can go too far – congressional rules prohibit members and staffers from accepting anything of value from someone who is either a lobbyists or works for a firm which employs a lobbyist; the tale of a young woman who was sent flowers by a man she had met socially, and had to return them as a violation of the gifts rule, raises questions about whether that rule goes a bit too far). But it's difficult to connect the dots on a political payback scheme with the McDonnells and Williams.
What transpired is cringe-worthy, but it doesn't mean the feds have a strong case to put the McDonnells in jail for up to 30 years. It's like Justin Bieber – he's so irritating, you sort of hope authorities find something on him. But really, searching his home as part of an investigation into whether he egged his neighbor's house? Both the McDonnells (and Beiber, for that matter) may be disgraced. Putting them behind bars is a much harder enterprise.