RICHMOND — Poor Bob McDonnell. He’s so aggrieved, so misunderstood.
His wife yelled at him so much that he was too scared to ask her to give back $50,000 she received from a businessman, even though he was “extremely upset” with her. (What a shrew.)
His sons weren’t much better. They accepted expensive golf clubs and bags from the same businessman and wouldn’t return them, even though their father told them that the unsolicited presents were “a little much.” (Stubborn brats.)
Now the mean Justice Department thinks he did something wrong by taking so much largesse from the man who unmistakably hoped to get official favors in return.
Don’t they know his heart was pure? So what if he neglected to disclose some of the gifts, or insist on written documents for $120,000 in sweetheart loans? He was too busy creating jobs for Virginia families!
We finally heard the former governor’s version of the scandal in sworn testimony here last week, and his strategy for beating the federal corruption charges is clear.
He’s making an all-out plea for the jury’s sympathy, casting himself as an unwitting victim of his wife’s lies, his overwhelming work demands and businessman Jonnie Williams Sr.’s alleged perjury.
The game plan might succeed. In the witness chair for 21 / 2 emotional and grueling days, with more to come this week, McDonnell was consistently poised and articulate. He also was relentlessly focused on driving home a few key points, often repeating phrases word for word.
In that way, McDonnell was very much the polished politician whose staff marveled at his ability to stay “on message” during campaigns.
But probe beneath the surface to dissect the substance of what he said, and McDonnell doesn’t come off as an innocent casualty of unfortunate circumstances.
His story has too many contradictions and convenient rationalizations to accept his self-portrayal at face value.
Here’s the bottom line: McDonnell extracted luxuries and cash from Williams knowing the transactions were ethically questionable.
As Judge James Spencer pointedly reminded him at one point, McDonnell acknowledged early on that people who donate money expect something in return.
“My rule of thumb is every contributor wants something,” McDonnell said.
But McDonnell convinced himself it was okay to accept it all, providing he didn’t give Williams anything more than “routine access” in return.
“That really is the truth of what happened,” said Andrew G. McBride, a former federal prosecutor in Richmond who now practices at Wiley Rein in the District. “His position is, ‘I let Maureen and myself to some extent play Jonnie Williams for the money we needed, but I knew where the legal line was, and I never crossed it.”
That might be enough to win him acquittal on the principal charges of corruption. But it also yields a sour picture of the governor’s motives, which could hurt him with the jury.
Over and over, McDonnell said he was surprised or unenthusiastic about the gifts and cash flowing from Williams, or that he didn’t really need the help.
Yet he repeatedly found justifications to accept it. In several cases, he exploited loopholes in Virginia’s lax ethics laws to keep the bounty secret.
Several internal contradictions also mar his account. For instance, he testified that he fully expected written documents to be prepared for Williams’s initial $50,000 loan to Maureen and the subsequent $70,000 in loans to a real estate business he owned with his sister.
But no such documents were drawn up.
Then there’s his insistence that he couldn’t have conspired with Maureen because the two were barely on speaking terms.
But he also said they coordinated decisions regarding their five children and that she did “a really great job as first lady” of Virginia.
If the two handled those responsibilities effectively, then what was stopping them from conniving to squeeze money out of Williams?
Finally, at the end of his initial round of testimony Friday, McDonnell said dramatically that he didn’t blame his wife for what happened. It seemed calculated to score points as a man who took responsibility for his actions.
But the former governor spent all Thursday morning detailing how the whole thing was almost entirely his wife’s doing, because she acted behind his back and alienated his affections with her fury.
He can’t have it both ways.
A jury might yet find the former governor not guilty under the law. But he’s hardly innocent.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpostcom/mccartney.