Former Virginia governor and Republican presidential hopeful Bob McDonnell tried to argue, in response to a fourteen-count federal felony indictment Tuesday, that he had done no worse than President Barack Obama in helping his donors. Yet McDonnell’s real model is not Obama, but another leading Democrat: namely, former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who ran against Obama in 2008 and beat federal charges in 2012.
Edwards was accused of using nearly $1 million from campaign donors to cover up an affair that threatened to derail his White House ambitions. Throughout the trial, Edwards admitted that what he did was morally wrong but insisted that he had not broken any laws. A jury agreed–at least enough to acquit him on one of the charges brought against him by the Department of Justice. There was a mistrial on the others and the case was dropped.
McDonnell is trying the same tack, admitting that accepting gaudy gifts from a benefactor was wrong, but also insisting that he had not broken any laws, and that the government is stretching the law in pursuing him. It is not a bad strategy, at least initially, given that the Department of Justice has had a string of poor results lately: the Edwards loss, only one guilty count in the first trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, and others.
Reading the McDonnell indictment, it is clear that his Edwards strategy has a chance (as opposed to his “Obama defense,” which is a good political line but won’t stand up in court). The alleged corruption started in April 2011, more than two years after McDonnell took office, and is purported to have involved “payments, loans, gifts and other things of value” in exchange for Gov. McDonnell “performing official actions on an as-needed basis.”
Essentially, the case boils down to this: Jonnie R. Williams, the CEO of pharmaceutical company Star Scientific, provided McDonnell and his wife with cash, loans, gifts and services. Simultaneously, he also sought help in allowing Star Scientific’s products to be tested, particularly through state-funded studies, so that the company could make legitimate and legal claims about their health benefits. The McDonnells were eager to help out.
The real question is whether there was a quid pro quo–in other words, whether the governor and his wife gave the company unusual benefits in exchange for the unusual personal gifts. The relationship and the boosterism provided by the McDonnells for Star Scientific seem inappropriate–and Maureen McDonnell tried to conceal her ownership of Star Scientific stock by selling it (though she was open in her public support of the firm).
Separately, the indictment says, the McDonnells allegedly concealed loans from Williams in loan applications relating to their residential properties. After his wife was confronted by law enforcement about the loans, the governor made corrections to the loan applications. It all looks extremely fishy–particularly the bizarrely close involvement of Maureen McDonnell in the particulars of state governance. Yet it does not look like a slam-dunk.
There is no real “smoking gun” here–no “f***ing valuable thing.” There is a highly improper relationship, but the question of intent is murky. The most serious charge, and the one with the longest penalty (30 years), is the one about making a false statement on a loan application. If anything results in a plea deal, that will be it. Otherwise, the governor and his wife will not go to federal prison–even if they do not return to politics, either.