Overreach in the McDonnell case? Five former AG’s see it, too

April 4

Earlier this year, we wrote the following about the Achilles heel of the federal government’s corruption case against former governor Bob McDonnell:

“We applaud federal prosecutors for being diligent. But going to trial [with their case against the McDonnell’s]…would offer little hope of justice … . It’s time for the federal prosecution to end.”

It put us out on a lonely limb, far from the conventional wisdom, which had already tried and convicted McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.

We took our inspiration from one of the great dissenters of all-time — Oliver Wendell Holmes — whose book, “The Common Law,” explained the vital role of common sense in the majesty of our jurisprudence. We wrote that:

“It doesn’t take Oliver Wendell Holmes to figure out that the federal investigation may be colliding with legitimate concerns about a lack of solid evidence.”

Turns out, five former Virginia attorneys general agree with us. They filed a legal brief asking U.S. District Court Judge James Spencer to dismiss the first 11 of the 14 charges against the governor and former first lady.

As lawyers, they phrase their position differently than journalists would. But they concluded what we understood months ago:  McDonnell’s behavior may have been unethical and even disgraceful.  Yet he committed no crime — especially for a modern-day politician. Like it or not, a pay-to-play culture exists in our politics, condoned and accepted by those claiming to be reformers.  As we noted in this space just a few days ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe already demonstrated politically what the five former attorneys general have now explained legally.

This bipartisan collection of top Virginia lawyers point to a central truth about the McDonnell case: Without a smoking gun proving there was a quid-pro-quo – in this instance, McDonnell taking money in exchange for agreeing to carry out some “official act” to benefit former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams — all the government has is a governor doing what every chief executive in Virginia has been told is legal.

The McDonnells, in difficult financial straits, took loans and gifts from Williams personally, as opposed to running the funds through McDonnell’s political action committee. They tried to keep it a secret, although they did report, in veiled fashion, a $50,000 loan to Mrs. McDonnell. A criminal conviction requires evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. All the prosecutors know is what the founder of Star Scientific claims Mr. McDonnell said either directly or with the proverbial wink.

The McDonnells vehemently deny this. A crime requires an act done with the required “mens rea.” Unless prosecutors can prove the governor or his wife had an illegal motivation, what the McDonnells did was merely to give a big donor special access. This is pay to play. And, regrettably, it’s perfectly legal. We slammed the General Assembly’s phony reforms for not addressing this.

Could these five attorneys general be wrong? Yes. But as we wrote:

“In America, we do not have to prove our innocence in court.”

If these five legal experts don’t believe the McDonnells violated the law beyond a reasonable doubt, how can Judge Spencer assume a jury will reach a contrary decision based on the evidence?

Even if Spencer agrees with the former AGs, the former governor would still face a felony count alleging a false mortgage application statement, another charging his wife with obstructing the grand jury, and both for allegedly jointly misleading another bank in order to get a property loan.

But you say: “Guys, for the whole front-page scandal to boil down to these charges is a travesty of another kind.”

Yes, it is.  For months we’ve argued for what seemed a radical view.  We’re no longer alone.

Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.

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