The Campaign Spot

The Cautionary Tale of Bob McDonnell

From the Wednesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Bob McDonnell, Once One of the GOP’s Rising Stars, Heads to the Courthouse

Bob McDonnell, you’re a big jerk.

Here’s one detail from the indictment that’s just heartbreaking if you ever thought Bob McDonnell had a bright future as a leader on the national stage:

On or about August 1, 2011, MAUREEN MCDONNELL also met privately with JW (presumably McDonnell donor and Star Scientific CEO Jonny Williams). During the meeting, MAUREEN MCDONNELL noticed JW’s watch and asked what brand it was. JW informed her it was a Rolex. She informed JW that she would like to get one for ROBERT MCDONNELL because he would like a Rolex. JW expressed concern regarding whether ROBERT MCDONNELL would actually wear such a luxury watch given his role as a senior government official. MAUREEN MCDONNELL told JW that she wanted JW to buy a Rolex for ROBERT MCDONNELL. JW subsequently bought a Rolex for ROBERT MCDONNELL. When JW contacted MAUREEN MCDONNELL to ask her what she wanted engraved on the watch, MAUREEN MCDONNELL instructed JW to have “71st Governor of Virginia” engraved on the back of the Rolex.

If these points in the indictment are accurate, even Jonnie Williams — the guy allegedly bribing the McDonnells with these gifts and loans — seemed to sense this was a bad idea. McDonnell earned $175,000 per year as governor — one of the highest salaries of any governor — and obviously doesn’t have to worry about paying rent while he’s governor. But the Rolex cost $6,500. That’s a pretty hefty chunk of change for a timepiece. People would inevitably ask questions about how he could afford it.

It sounds like the McDonnells had well-hidden financial issues from the moment they entered the governor’s mansion. In December 2009, one month after McDonnell wins in a landslide, Maureen McDonnell e-mails “JE,” one of Robert McDonnell’s senior staff members:

“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.”

Painful lesson: You never really know a candidate or public official, unless you’re in the innermost of inner circles. Little or nothing in Bob McDonnell’s past as state attorney general or state legislator pointed to an extravagant lifestyle, serious personal debts, or blind spots in judgment. Even if you know a candidate . . . you never really know how power will change them.

Someone asked how much of this mess is the responsibility of Maureen McDonnell, and how much is the fault of the governor. That doesn’t really matter much, now does it? He’s the governor. He’s got to know that if he’s going to accept a gift, he has to disclose it. He’s got to have the basic common sense to realize that one guy offering more than $150,000 in loans and gifts isn’t just doing it because he’s a nice guy. And if his wife is getting him involved in financial arrangements that appear compromising, he’s got to put his foot down and get himself out.

The legal response from McDonnell’s lawyersciting me! Thanks a heap, guys!* — is that governors get gifts from donors all the time, and that no matter how awful it stinks, nothing actually breaks federal law.

But part of me can’t believe they’ve been reduced to arguing this:

All that Governor McDonnell is alleged to have done for Star or Mr. Williams was facilitate two meetings with Virginia Health and Human Resources officials (who gave Star nothing but a little of their time), make a brief appearance at a Star event in Richmond, attend a private luncheon hosted by his wife (and paid for by his PAC) at the Governor’s mansion at which Star announced the award of research grants to two Virginia universities, and attend a large healthcare reception at the Mansion to which his wife had invited a few Star representatives (invitations indistinguishable from those extended to thousands of other people over the Governor’s time in office).

Yeah, that’s all!

The Commonwealth of Virginia does not provide its governor a mansion so that he can help donors sell their products, and we don’t elect these guys so they can suddenly become enormously popular with rich guys who want to share their vacation homes and buy them watches. You can’t cash in on your office — and if the argument is that every elected official does it, you can’t do it on this scale.

* This is sarcasm.

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