Every defendant, including the McDonnells, deserves the presumption of innocence. In a statement McDonnell reiterates his apology for taking gifts from Star Scientific’s chief Jonnie R. Williams, but asserts he never did anything illegal. And as we know the Justice Department has had more than one public integrity prosecution unravel (e.g. Ted Stevens). That all said, you can’t read the 43-page indictment without being floored by the couple’s alleged multiple, ongoing and personal intervention to obtain riches from Williams. The indictment ticks off e-mails, calls and documents in which the two allegedly scheme to get loans, hide them from financial institutions and avoid reporting requirements.
Some Republicans sympathetic to the former governor have postulated that Maureen was really the bad actor here, attempting to live a lavish lifestyle which she and her husband could not afford. But if the allegations are true then the governor was more than simply a distracted spouse. He was a full participant not only in obtaining monies but in nudging state officials to act on Star Scientific’s behalf.
For those who knew McDonnell over two decades in Virginia politics, the allegations — as detailed and as damning as they appear — come as a shock. The former governor was to most observers a straight arrow. McDonnell, whether convicted or not, committed a monumental violation of trust, as he has acknowledged. As unfortunate as it may be, his entire tenure — education reforms, transportation funding, restoration of voting rights for convicted felons and more — is now virtually beside the point. He will be “the only Virginia governor ever indicted.” In Virginia, which has not had a stream of felon governors as has Louisiana or Illinois, this is a new and unprecedented low in politics.
It should be a bracing moment for politicians of both parties. Greed is a powerful force, leading people to gross misjudgments. Combined with the self delusion that accompanies power (They love me! I’m sacrificing for the public! I am above reproach!) this makes for a toxic and devastating brew.
Before the Star Scientific story broke last year McDonnell was a plausible presidential candidate. Now he will be pressed to stay out of jail. That is as steep and sudden as any political collapse we’ve seen. “Pride goeth before the fall” doesn’t begin to describe it.