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“Punishment Fit For A Politician”: The Requests For Mercy Seemed To Presume He’d Get Special Treatment Because Of Who He Is

The most touching moment of bipartisanship on the opening day of Congress came not on Capitol Hill, but 100 miles away in Richmond, Virginia, at former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s sentencing hearing on his multiple-count public corruption conviction.

“He’s been punished, been punished indelibly,” former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder told the judge. McDonnell was on track to be a top-tier Republican presidential contender, he went on, and now the dream is gone. Wilder, 83, would know that sting better than most, since he himself ran a very short campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1991.

An appeal centering on McDonnell’s dashed White House hopes was audacious but hardly the only plea for mercy that smacked of entitlement. There was a McDonnell daughter who said her dad should avoid prison because she was about to have his first grandchild. His sister, who said his children (who are adults) need him because he is the “go-to parent” in the (two-parent) family. His political associates, who said he’s a really great person who restored felons’ voting rights and helped foster children.

And then there was this one: If McDonnell went to jail, “it would be like burying something of enormous value.” That came from William Horan, executive director of Operation Blessing International, urging a community service sentence that McDonnell could fulfill by working for his organization.

Forgive me for rolling my eyes. The United States is “the world’s largest jailer,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union, with diverse sources pegging the U.S. prison population at more than 2.2 million. We can safely assume that tens of thousands of people of “enormous value” are “buried” behind bars. Maybe hundreds of thousands. Heck, maybe everyone, depending on how you define “enormous value.” Lots of them are no doubt nice, much needed by their families and will never run for president. And yet, there they are, in jail.

It’s not that I’m inured to the human tragedy here. This was a terrible fall. While our views are very different, I respected McDonnell’s political skills, recognized his potential and admired the pragmatism he showed in signing a badly needed law to rejuvenate the transportation system in his state. Still, the requests for mercy on his behalf seemed to presume he’d get special treatment because of who he is.

Especially amid a difficult national conversation over race, policing, crime and sentencing, this does not sit well. What’s more, in a way McDonnell did receive special treatment. The two-year term he faces was far less than the 10 years prosecutors had sought based on sentencing guidelines, and it came after U.S. District Judge James Spencer said it broke his heart to send McDonnell to jail but “I have a duty I can’t avoid.” McDonnell himself said he was humiliated and humbled, but he also insisted: “I have never, ever betrayed my sacred oath of office in any way.”

McDonnell has come off as just that oblivious throughout this debacle, in which he and his wife Maureen were convicted of taking more than $177,000 in gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams, as they helped Williams promote an unproven dietary supplement called Anatabloc. The roster included vacations, clothing, jewelry, golf outings, $15,000 to cater a daughter’s wedding, a $50,000 loan to Maureen, and a $70,000 loan to McDonnell and his sister. All this from a man who wanted something from them. But the governor apparently didn’t see anything wrong with that.

With his polished manner and swing-state credentials, McDonnell was a much mentioned vice-presidential prospect in 2012 until his name suddenly vanished from the conversation. How much do you want to bet that happened the moment Maureen urged Ann Romney to try Anatabloc for her multiple sclerosis? I’d put money on it. It was nevertheless disconcerting — or “dangerously delusional,” in Spencer’s words — that McDonnell’s legal strategy was to blame everything on his wife. Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak summarized it thusly: “So, Maureen McDonnell wrestled the Rolex on him? Muscled him into Willams’s private jet? Held him at wife-point until he drove the Ferrari and smiled for the camera?”

It goes without saying that life is unfair. The current Virginia governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, will never need a Jonnie Williams because his own business ventures made him a wealthy man. Yet McDonnell had options he did not exercise. If he was so interested in money, he could have made a mint in private legal practice at any time. Instead he chose to be a JAG officer, a state legislator, attorney general and then governor — jobs he knew would not make him rich. He also had the choice of not associating with Williams and taking his largesse.

Like most of the 2.2-plus million serving time, McDonnell made some wrong choices. Cynics about our justice system can take some comfort from the fact that his punishment is not limited to the death of his higher ambitions.

 

By: Jill Lawrence, The National Memo, January 9, 2015

January 10, 2015 Posted by | Bob McDonnell, Politicians, Public Corruption | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Must Stop Inflating Our Elected Leaders”: No More “His Excellency” For Men Who Are Anything But Excellent

What are we to make of the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, an erstwhile presidential aspirant, and his wife Maureen on a bevy of federal corruption charges? The case held plenty of entertainment value for the schadenfreude-prone among us, but was there any broader meaning in it? It’s tempting, after all, to dismiss it as a sui generis story, given the uniqueness of the McDonnells’ predicament (dallying with a vitamin-supplement promoter?) and Virginia’s absurdly lax landscape (the state has virtually no limits on gifts to elected officials.)

But I would argue that there is a larger lesson to be taken from this tale. The McDonnell saga is, to me, just the most glaring recent example of a tendency in American politics and government that has bothered me for some time: our weird, unhealthy inflation of executive elected office at all levels of government. As the McDonnell revelations unspooled, first in the dogged reporting of the Washington Post’s Roz Helderman and Laura Vozzella and then in the trial itself, it became clear that driving much of the McDonnells’ behavior was their extremely exalted conception of the office of governor.

This conception not only contributed to the McDonnells’ extraordinary sense of entitlement but also fed the pressures that led them to accept the favors of the vitamin-supplement salesman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. For one thing, Maureen McDonnell felt great anxiety about being sufficiently well turned out for her husband’s 2010 inauguration and, generally, about living up to the expectations for being the First Lady. Think about that for a second: in the 21st century, a woman needed to worry about performing a role called “First Lady” because her husband was the elected head of one of the nation’s 50 state governments. Does this happen elsewhere? Does the wife of the head of Germany’s state of Lower Saxony (whose population is roughly the same as Virginia’s) fret about living up to the role of “Erste Frau?” Is the wife of the premier of British Columbia or Saskatchewan worrying about whether her wardrobe will measure up?

Sure, one could write some of these anxieties off to Maureen McDonnell’s personal insecuritiesbut not entirely. After all, her husband was taking on a role in which it was deemed appropriate, by traditional protocol, for him to be referred to as “His Excellency.” (Virginia is hardly alone in thisConnecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and West Virginia all use this royalist language, a holdover from colonial times.)

The title was hardly the only trapping of office that could’ve led the McDonnells to believe they were monarchs of a sort. They lived in an official mansion, after all, with an executive chef (who, it turned out, was the man who got the scandal rolling when he reported the McDonnells for Williams’ $10,000 check to pay for McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding catering.) The chef, Todd Schneider, recently noted to The Post that he would “often get texts from the first lady about the mansion’s food late at night, sometimes after midnight.” Yes, the wife of the democratically elected governor of one of our 50 states was sending notes to the taxpayer-paid chef at her taxpayer-paid mansion to express her menu preferences. Since when did we become “Downton Abbey”?

This inflation was especially extreme in Virginia, which has an especially grandiose notion of its state governmentThomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, “the Virginia way,” and all that. But you see the puffery of executive office all around the country, in members of both parties. You see it in Texas governor Rick Perry traveling the country with a veritable platoon of state police troopers at his side. You saw it in the reports of Maryland’s attorney general, Democrat Doug Gansler, who got a kick out of having his official state-police driver turn on the siren and drive on the shoulder while on routine business. You see it in virtually every utterance and step taken by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who bestrides his state like some latter-day King George III (except when he’s being flown by helicopter to his son’s baseball game and then driven by car for the remaining few hundred feet from copter to bleachers.) And you see it at the federal levelnot just in all the pomp that has come to surround the presidency (that’s a whole story in its own right) but in the puffery that attends even anonymous Cabinet secretaries. I remember once seeing Ray LaHood, the amiable and utterly anodyne head of the Department of Transportation, being swept into a convoy of tinted-window SUVs, with earpiece-adorned guards, as he was leaving Capitol Hill after testifying on bike paths at a minor committee hearing. Heck, even the acting head of the White Office of Drug Control Policya man who, truly, not 10 people in this country could pick out of a lineuphas a security detail.

How did this happen? How did a country that was founded in rebellion against royal overlords become so prone to its own sort of executive self-importance? Part of it has to do with the problem that my editor Frank Foer laid out in an essay in the current issue of this magazine, on the ways in which our federalist system and delegation of powers to countless fragmented municipalities has created thousands of little princes with their own fiefdoms and aggrandizing tendencies. But it may go even deeper than that, to some ancient feudal habits deep within us that allow and even encourage our elected leaders to think they’re lords of their domain. Regardless, it’s time it stopped. No more “His Excellency” for men who, more often than not, are anything but excellent.

 

By: Alec MacGillis, The New Republic, September 5, 2014

September 8, 2014 Posted by | Bob McDonnell, Elected Officials, Public Corruption | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

” My Wife Made Me Do It”: Virginia’s Ex-Governor Is a Political Crook For Our Times

In an era of small-bore politics and lowered ambition, the corruption trial of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was the scandal best suited for the times. It did not feature outsized personalities or grandiose schemes. Unlike former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, McDonnell wasn’t trying to sell a United States Senate seat. And, unlike former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, McDonnell didn’t try to portray himself as a loveable rogue.

Instead, McDonnell, who was found guilty on 11 counts related to public corruption on Thursday, spent the trial trying to convince jurors that he was just a henpecked husband struggling with his family’s credit card debt.

The scandal revolved around McDonnell and his wife Maureen, who herself was convicted on eight counts related to public corruption for taking gifts from Jonnie Williams, a businessman trying to promote a tobacco-based dietary supplement called Anatabloc. These gifts ranged from$120,000 in low interest loans to Williams simply allowing the Virginia governor to spend a few hours driving his Ferrari. Prosecutors argued that in exchange for these gifts, McDonnell inappropriately used his office to promote Anatabloc and help Williams get state research grants to further study the drug.

McDonnell, who turned down a plea deal earlier this year, argued that he and his wife couldn’t have conspired to accept gifts from Williams because their marriage was so irretrievably broken.  The former Virginia governor’s lawyers portrayed their client as a man trying to save a marriage on the rocks to a woman who was increasingly prone towards “fiery anger and hate” toward him and had “a crush” on Williams.

When the verdict was announced in the federal court in Richmond on Thursday, McDonnell immediately broke down in tears and wept openly. It marked a huge fall from grace for a politician who was once considered a potential presidential candidate and rumored to be under consideration to be Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012.

The former Virginia governor and his wife are due to face sentencing in January 2015, although McDonnell’s attorney already said he will appeal the verdict up to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.  In the meantime, if the conviction stands, McDonnell will be the first governor in the nearly 240-year history of Virginia, ranging from Patrick Henry to Terry McAuliffe, to be convicted of a crime.

 

By: Ben Jacobs, The Daily Beast, September 4, 2014

September 5, 2014 Posted by | Bob McDonnell, Public Corruption | , , , | Leave a comment

“The Politics Of Free Food”: The Rules On Campaign Contributions In Virginia Are Pretty Much The Same As In Texas

Today, let’s talk about Virginia, host of the nation’s most interesting off-year election. True, the New York mayor’s race has been pretty frisky since we acquired Anthony Weiner as a candidate, but I’m still going with Virginia.

The governor’s race there has a dandy ethics controversy that began with charges that a businessman with a rather dicey background gave Gov. Bob McDonnell $15,000 to pay for the catering at his daughter’s wedding. Actually, this would have been perfectly legal if McDonnell had just disclosed it. Under Virginia’s ethics laws, the governor can accept anything — house, car, private jet, former Soviet republic — as long as he puts it in the proper form.

He also might have been able to get off the hook when the transaction was discovered, just by saying he forgot to mention it. (Virginia’s rules are more flexible than a Slinky.) But McDonnell claimed total innocence, arguing that the $15,000 was a wedding gift to his daughter and, therefore, didn’t count.

“It’s caused a fair amount of pain for me personally,” he said. “I’m a governor, but I’m a dad, and I love my daughter very much.”

What, exactly, do you think that means? That McDonnell feels bad about shoveling the blame onto his offspring? That he could not have afforded to give her all the jumbo shrimp she deserved without financial assistance?

Looks like an investigation for Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli! Except — whoops — it turned out that Cuccinelli had also taken gifts from the same businessman, some of which he, too, had failed to report. Like several stays in a vacation home, one of which involved a catered Thanksgiving dinner. Have you noticed a theme here?

McDonnell’s term is up and Cuccinelli is running to replace him. Perhaps unreported freebies will be a big campaign issue. Although in a more perfect world, voters might focus on the attorney general’s two-year investigation of a University of Virginia scientist for the crime of believing in global warming.

But, still, the catered affairs are pretty interesting. When politicians take freebies, it is, alas, generally more compelling than conflicts involving campaign finance. Governor McDonnell had previously taken more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the same benefactor, the dietary supplement maker Jonnie Williams. But somehow that seemed to pale beside those shrimp.

“There’s a personal relationship attached to gifts and perks,” said Peggy Kerns, the director of the National Conference of State Legislatures Center for Ethics in Government. A former Colorado lawmaker herself, Kerns offered a vision of resentful voters, sitting shivering at the end zone of a Broncos game, while comfy officials enjoyed the buffet in a corporate sponsor’s luxury box.

Campaign contributions do way, way more to corrupt the political process than gifts to politicians. Unfortunately, it’s harder to make the emotional connection to a wayward PAC. This is why so many public officials get into trouble for accepting free home repairs. Everybody wants a kitchen with granite countertops. But few of us yearn to purchase our own negative ad campaign.

Do you remember John Rowland, the governor of Connecticut who got sent to the clink for corruption? A ton of corruption, including an aide who took a bribe in the form of gold coins that he then buried in the backyard. But the thing that stuck in everybody’s mind was the free $3,600 hot tub.

This week, Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, celebrated his release from prison after serving three years for eight felony charges, from tax fraud to lying to White House officials. But we will all remember his fall from grace in terms of $250,000 in apartment renovations. (Kerik was welcomed home with a shrimp scampi dinner provided by a star of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” It was probably a gift, but we don’t care anymore.)

Virginia believes that as long as officials report what they take, the system will work honorably. But there’s not even a mechanism to assure those reports are accurate. There isn’t a huge record of political corruption, but, as John McGlennon, a professor of government at William and Mary pointed out, “our laws are so loose, it’s hard to run afoul of them.” The home of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regards itself as someplace special. But the rules on campaign contributions are pretty much the same as in Texas.

“Virginians probably would not want to hear you say that,” said McGlennon.

Some states have already figured out an answer to the gift question, which is to prohibit officials from accepting even a free cup of coffee from lobbyists or people who do business with the government. This appears likely to happen in Virginia several months after hell freezes over. And that’s actually the easier issue. The big problem is campaign contributions, which have become so huge and complicated that it’s hard for despairing voters to get their heads around them.

If we could only figure out a way to require that they all are made in the form of shrimp.

 

By: Gail Collins, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 31, 2013

June 3, 2013 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“One More Sleazy Christian”: Bob McDonnell Is Never Going To Be President

This is so sleazy and cowardly, what he said about the $15,000 from the CEO who helped to pay for his daughter’s wedding:

In Virginia, gifts to family members don’t need to be reported. The governor says that’s why he did not report the $15,000 gift from Williams to help pay for his daughter’s wedding. The FBI is now looking into the details of that gift.

“My daughter indicated that she wanted to pay for the wedding. She and her husband Chris. It’s something my wife and I did 37 years ago,” said Gov. McDonnell.

“As I’ve said publicly, I signed the initial contract, we put down some initial deposits, but my daughter and her husband wanted to pay for the wedding, in fact…they paid a significant amount, in fact, almost all the other expenses and they wanted to do this. Now they accepted the gift from Mr. Williams. And I believe under the reporting laws that this would be a gift to my daughter and not to me,” explained Governor McDonnell.

Is he out of his mind? This is a bribe, pure and simple. It may not be legally or technically, but morally, he accepted a bribe. And now he’s shoving it off on his daughter? I wonder if he had the decency to tell her before he decided to throw her under the bus in public. Unbelievable.

Why do these people always think they’re not going to get caught? And what power on earth could make him think that accepting this $15,000 was okay? It’s mind boggling. And doesn’t this man purport to be a good Christian?

Virginia governors are limited to one term. McDonnell supposedly fancies himself a presidential candidate and sees his path to the GOP nomination as through the Christian right (he studied at Pat Robertson’s Regent University), which is why he proposes all those laws policing vaginas. Those are bad enough, at least to some of us. But this. This is like some corrupt Bronx pol in the 1950s. And it will stick. One more sleazy Christian.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, May 1, 2013

May 2, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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