Please, Governor Rolex, hold off on the smiles and celebration.
That conviction still stands in the court of public opinion.
Because seeing former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell’s life laid bare — the Ferrari rides, the shopping sprees, the private jets, the $300 golf rounds and that Rolex — did plenty to explain why American voters are so cheesed off with politics now.
Yes, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned McDonnell’s bribery conviction on Monday.
And, yes, the court made it harder to prosecute public officials for the kinds of grody shenanigans that their herd calls business as usual with its ruling.
But the victory for common people — the folks whose moral compasses spin whack-a-doodle when they hear about the ways 1-percenters conduct business — remains whole.
McDonnell was convicted of 11 corruption-related charges by a federal jury in 2014. His wife, Maureen, picked up eight.
The truth is Virginia didn’t need the verdict to know that McDonnell was wrong.
The ravenous way he devoured the shiny things dangled before him, the way he refused to acknowledge during his trial that his behavior was distasteful and the way he publicly degraded his wife during the trial was enough to show he’s guilty, guilty, guilty of moral transgressions far more weighty than those we regulate with law.
This all started when the McDonnells began taking more than $175,000 in loans and gifts from Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
Williams was trying to get help marketing his company’s new product, a nutritional supplement that contains anatabine, a close relative of nicotine found in tobacco plants that may have some anti-inflammatory properties.
That company, Star Scientific, was launched in 1990 as a maker of discount cigarettes. But cigarette sales were flagging and Williams thought he’d found another way to make Virginia tobacco plants profitable again. He targeted the governor’s mansion as his ticket to success.
Williams showered the first family with attention and gifts.
He helped pay for their daughter’s wedding reception, flew them around on private planes, bought Maureen McDonnell designer clothes, loaned them money, took them on vacation. And, yeah, he helped Virginia’s first lady buy her man a Rolex.
In exchange, the McDonnells handed out his nutritional supplement in gift bags at the governor’s mansion, arranged meetings for Williams with state officials and held a luncheon in the governor’s mansion to help launch the supplement. They gave Williams a say over who would be at a governor’s reception for health-care leaders so he could have the right audience hear his pitch.
The McDonnells said they were simply promoting Virginia products.
Is it really that different from serving Virginia wine at mansion dinners or urging folks to eat the state’s oysters during the holidays?
It sounded shady to me.
And it probably sounds icky to business folks who would like support from the governor for their home-grown products but don’t have cash to throw at him or a Ferrari to let him drive.
But what the Supreme Court told us Monday is that this is pretty common for folks who aren’t commoners. It’s the way business is too-often done.
“Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote.
“The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns — whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm,” Roberts wrote.
In that light, sending McDonnell to prison for the favors he did for Williams “could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships.”
The Supreme Court decided that it’s a complicated legal area, fuzzy enough to spare the McDonnells their impending prison sentences, giving a nod to the decent public servants out there who do good work for their constituents.
But hang in there, folks. Roberts totally gets why that Virginia jury — and the rest of us — are grossed out by this model.
“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
He said it. Tawdry.
And McDonnell knew it. Six months before he was indicted, trying to salvage his aspirations of a 2016 presidential run and avoid criminal charges, he hired a public-relations team and repaid the loans Williams gave him.
“I am deeply sorry for the embarrassment certain members of my family and I brought upon my beloved Virginia and her citizens,” McDonnell tweeted in summer 2013.
It was the first time he ever apologized for the scandal that consumed his final year in office. “I want you to know that I broke no laws and that I am committed to regaining your sacred trust and confidence,” he wrote. “I hope today’s action is another step toward that end.”
Once the indictment came down, he went back to saying he did nothing wrong or blaming his wife for what happened.
“Broke no laws”?
Nope. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, McDonnell did break laws. Unwritten ones.
Read more Petula Dvorak: