Is the McDonnell Case Overblown?

by Patrick Brennan

Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife have been indicted on 14 criminal counts by the Department of Justice, related to gifts he received from a businessman named Jonnie Williams, work he did promoting Williams’s nutritional-supplement maker in various capacities as the state’s chief executive, and a few other activities. There’s no question that McDonnell made serious mistakes, as he surely knows, and he was dishonest, but did he do something that’s really worthy of a federal criminal indictment? 

Rachel Maddow suggested on her show last night that his crime was comparable to Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to sell a U.S. Senate seat. What did McDonnell do? He (allegedly) accepted a ton of fancy gifts while suggesting to Williams that he’d help promote the company, did quite minor things as governor to actually promote the company, lied about one item on two different loan applications. His wife allegedly wrote a note to Williams claiming, falsely, she’d return the gifts. The federal indictment alleges this adds up to bribery and a criminal conspiracy. Obviously what McDonnell did was wrong, and dishonest — there’s a reason why he tried so hard to keep the gifts secret, and made sure to avoid having to disclose that his family held stock in the nutritional company (disposing of and dispersing them just before a reporting deadline). But this isn’t exactly selling a seat in the U.S. Capitol.

Maddow argued the lack of interest from other corners of Virginia state government derives from the fact that (unlike, say, in Chris Christie’s New Jersey) the governor’s party controlled the legislative branch. But as former McDonnell spokesman Rich Galen (who, of course, is predisposed) points out, there’s another explanation: The rest of Virginia’s state government is on thin ice, too, because they all have taken advantage of Virginia’s remarkably lax gift rules. Galen writes:

As I understand it, an elected official in Virginia has to report any gift or thing of value over $50 in a calendar year. He or she can take as much as they want, but they have to report it. However, they do not have to report gifts to family members or gifts from family members or close friends. That is, if I give you – Madam Delegate – a lovely decanter from the gift shop at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon that cost $250, you can take it, but you have to report it. However (again, as I understand it) I can present your spouse with John Kerry’s $7 million yacht, for keeps, and you don’t have to report a penny of that.

You know how I know this is the way business is done throughout the Virginia state government? Because of the screamingly loud silence that came from Democrats in the state house and senate during the entire investigatory process that began last March. 2013, remember, was an election year in the Commonwealth. Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General offices were all up for grabs as were all the members of the House of Delegates. . . . I can’t see every elected official’s bank account and vacation schedule, but in a year when attacking Bob McDonnell would have been Politics 101 if only to sully the Republican brand, there was almost none of it. . . . Nobody had the stomach to rain down investigators on every state legislator for the sake of one press release against Bob McDonnell.

Now, McDonnell is being indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, bribery, etc. — and “everybody else does it,” as Jim Geraghty has pointed out, isn’t a good defense. But it does raise questions about whether this investigation is overblown. Galen writes:

Are the McDonnells guilty of the 14 counts with which they are charged? Maybe some of the more minor ones, like refiling a corrected loan application but that’s a far cry from, as the feds have charged, essentially turning over the mechanism of state government to a dietary supplement manufacturer.

I know the McDonnells’ side of the story. They haven’t had their turn at bat yet, so we’ll see how it plays when they do, and you get to hear it, too.

If a court seems likely to disagree with Galen’s assessment, and find that McDonnell really did abuse his powers significantly in return for the gifts he received, then maybe it is worthy of federal charges. But it seems there should be a big gap between doing something dishonest and doing something that’s worthy of a federal criminal prosecution.

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