There is something unsettling about Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, being allowed to have a possible indictment on federal criminal charges delayed after senior U.S. Justice Department officials went along with requests from their attorneys.
Federal prosecutors reportedly told lawyers for the McDonnells on Dec. 9 that they planned to ask a grand jury to return an indictment. But those lawyers appealed to higher Justice Department officials, who agreed on Dec. 12 to delay any such decision, according to The Post.
While the Post reports that it isn’t uncommon for DOJ officials to delay indictments of high-profile figures, overriding federal prosecutors would be extremely rare. Possible indictments could now come sometime between Jan. 2 and February.
Why the delay? This is where the move gets murky.
The Post report suggests that one reason is so Virginia can avoid the shame of having a sitting governor under indictment. McDonnell is scheduled to leave office Jan. 11 when Democrat Terry McAuliffe takes over.
This is absurd. The McDonnells willingly and repeatedly entangled themselves in an unsavory relationship with Star Scientific Chief Executive Jonnie R. Williams, including accepting gifts and loans worth more than $165,000. Some of this was not reported on the governor’s financial disclosure forms. Maureen McDonnell appeared to be actively promoting a dietary supplement and other products made by financially struggling Star.
They did all this while McDonnell was in office; they can face any consequences for their actions while he is in office. It was obviously wrong because McDonnell gave back much of what could be given back and publicly apologized.
The Post reports that another argument for the indictment delay would be to make sure that the transition of power from McDonnell to McAuliffe is smooth. Huh? McDonnell has already introduced his proposed budget and McAuliffe has picked most of his team. How could any of that be disrupted?
Perhaps more important, there may be a credibility problem with potential prosecution witness Mary Shea Sutherland, who served as Maureen McDonnell’s chief of staff for 21 months. Sutherland was involved in setting up a special event in August 2011 with Mrs. McDonnell to launch Anatabloc, a dietary supplement crucial to Star Scientific.
Why would Sutherland be a weak witness? It’s not as if she was a novice in the executive mansion? She had worked for former Republican Govs. George Allen and Jim Gilmore. When Sutherland left to go into private events planning, Maureen McDonnell praised her work.
There’s also a deadline problem related to a sidebar state prosecution of the McDonnells. State authorities are looking into whether McDonnell violated state law by not filing complete and timely disclosure reports on required gift forms.
The timing in this matter has always been curious. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems that the McDonnell team is effectively pushing everything back as far as they can in hopes the government’s case will collapse. The team has the savvy to do so. For example, William A. Burck, Maureen McDonnell’s lawyer, is a Washington-based expert in helping corporations in crisis and was a federal prosecutor in New York. He was involved in the case against famed home-making star Martha Stewart.
I can’t help but speculate. Is some kind of dramatic move been engineered behind the scenes? Is Terry McAuliffe considering a grand gesture of granting McDonnell some kind of Gerald Ford-style pardon?
I hope not. That would be a betrayal of the trust of the people of Virginia. They have endured among the weakest disclosure and accountability laws in the nation. The biggest political corruption scandal in years should not be resolved behind closed doors.