McDonnells’ ‘twisted love story’ has an important lesson about public ethics

Robert McCartney
Columnist July 30

Chatting in the courthouse hallway Tuesday after opening arguments in the McDonnell trial turned Mr. Jefferson’s capital into Peyton Place, veteran political observer Bob Holsworth asked the key question.

If then-Gov. Bob McDonnell thought vitamin tycoon Jonnie Williams Sr. was “poison” to his marriage because of Williams’s “inappropriate” relationship with his wife, why did Bob keep accepting money from Jonnie — and even ask for more?

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

It does seem like a strange way to try to patch things up with the spouse.

The sensational defense argument that Maureen McDonnell had a “crush” on Jonnie all but guarantees that public interest in the trial will center around titillating details about the McDonnells’ allegedly broken marriage.

Who wants to talk about the legal nuances of what constitutes “an official act” when comments by Maureen’s attorney can only be interpreted as deliberate hints that she and Williams might have had an affair?

“I heard it was this twisted love story, and it’s super interesting,” said Alex, the young woman who served me a sandwich in the courthouse cafeteria at lunch. “I was thinking of going to sit in after work.”

I don’t want to spoil the fun. We could use some comic relief this summer, given the dispiriting news from the Gaza Strip, Ukraine and the Mexican border.

But we also should keep in mind that regardless of the verdicts, the trial raises an important question about how we expect our elected officials to behave: Should they and their family members be allowed to accept large gifts and sweetheart loans from people who have an interest in currying favor with the powerful?

Nobody questions that Bob and Maureen McDonnell and their children accepted such largesse. Nobody doubts that they were wrong to do so.

Remember that Bob McDonnell has apologized for the embarrassment he caused the state. He just insists that he stayed within the bounds of Virginia law, which, lucky for him, is honeycombed with loopholes.

Despite that apology and the public’s disgust over the scandal, little has been done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

A much-touted ethics-reform package passed this year by the General Assembly helped a bit but still leaves numerous avenues for exerting unsavory influence.

Even if the new statute had been in force before, ethics experts say, Williams apparently could have bestowed his gifts on the McDonnells.

That’s partly because the law applies only to gifts from registered lobbyists or people seeking contracts with the state, and Williams was neither. He wasn’t seeking a direct contract but instead wanted other kinds of state help to promote his tobacco-based diet supplement.

Moreover, the law continues to permit unlimited “intangible” gifts such as the luxury vacations that Williams bought for the McDonnells.

Almost all of the gifts and loans from Williams were kept secret from the public despite repeated claims by Bob McDonnell’s attorney that he had nothing to hide.

“It’s certainly clear that the laws in Virginia are too lax the way they’re currently written,” Holsworth, a retired political science professor, said.

Looking ahead to the trial, the public has a right to be suspicious of the wayward-spouse defense, on several grounds.

First, television ads during Bob McDonnell’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign featured heart-warming video clips of his wholesome family. Were those a lie, or did things really deteriorate so much after he took office?

Admittedly, it’s hard to know what goes on inside a marriage. But we’ve all noticed that despite the new claims, the two have not separated and recently celebrated their 60th birthdays together.

Also, it’s awfully convenient to learn — just at the time when the federal government accuses them of conspiring to break corruption laws — that the two supposedly were barely on speaking terms.

Finally, even if Williams had driven a wedge between the couple, it didn’t prevent Bob McDonnell from asking Williams for money. The prosecution showed an e-mail in which the then-governor asked the businessman for $20,000 in loans to a property firm owned by McDonnell and his sister. Williams agreed.

In another case, within six minutes of e-mailing Williams about help for the firm, McDonnell sent a separate e-mail asking a policy adviser to talk to him about supporting Williams’s products.

It was fine for McDonnell to try to promote Williams’s business, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber said, “just not in exchange for money.”

That’s the larger and more important message of this sordid, albeit entertaining, spectacle.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
mccartney
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