Shame on Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell for trying to wriggle out of responsibility in the Star Scientific gifts scandal by sacrificing his wife of 37 years.

It’s painful to watch the governor’s legal team systematically tear down the reputation for good judgment of the woman whom he’s previously portrayed as his beloved partner in a storybook romance.

Such lack of chivalry hardly squares with the governor’s long-standing image as a squeaky-clean, religious family man.

“He looks like a coward. It looks like he’s hiding behind a really thin excuse and blaming his wife,” said Andrew G. McBride, a former Justice Department official and federal prosecutor in Virginia.

“It doesn’t look very gubernatorial. It looks like a kid saying, ‘My brother did it,’ ” said McBride, who practices civil law in the District.

Admittedly, as a legal strategy, McDonnell’s approach is smart and shrewd. McBride and other legal experts said it was an effective way, albeit distasteful, to discourage federal prosecutors from indicting either the governor or his wife, Maureen, under anti-corruption law.

But the “she didn’t tell me” defense has a gaping hole: It applies to only a portion of the largess that the McDonnell family received from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams Sr. There’s no question that the governor was aware of some of the suspicious gifts and loans, including the largest ones.

Also, McDonnell never should have allowed himself to get in this position. He should have stepped in long ago to prevent Maureen from misusing the prestige of his office.

As my intrepid Post colleagues Rosalind Helderman and Carol Leonnig reported in August, McDonnell’s side is telling authorities that Maureen deliberately avoided informing her husband about some gifts she’d received from Williams.

In particular, the governor allegedly didn’t know that Williams had paid for $15,000 of high-fashion clothes for Maureen and for a $6,500 Rolex watch Maureen gave her husband as a Christmas present.

The governor’s side has also said that Maureen didn’t alert the governor about some actions she took to help promote Star Scientific’s principal product, an anti-inflammatory dietary supplement.

If prosecutors can’t prove otherwise, then they might have second thoughts about charging the governor.

That’s because a key part of any possible case would be showing that the governor used his office to promote the supplement in return for gifts from Williams. But no illicit exchange could have occurred if the governor didn’t know about one side of the trade.

It’s also doubtful that Maureen would be charged except as a co-conspirator in a case involving her husband. If he’s off the hook, then so is she.

In an important new twist in the case, a McDonnell legal spokesman said Aug. 16 that Maureen didn’t inform her husband right away on two occasions when she purchased thousands of shares in Star Scientific. The governor’s alleged lack of knowledge is significant because of a timing issue. Maureen sold the shares after the first purchase and then bought them back, in a way that prosecutors would typically interpret as an attempt to evade state disclosure laws. Prosecutors would be considerably more likely to indict McDonnell if they thought he were aware of such a possible violation.

“It would indicate a consciousness of guilt, if you will, that they engaged in a process of covering it up,” said Scott Fredericksen, a former federal prosecutor and independent counsel who is a white-collar defense attorney in the District.

A glaring problem with the governor’s overall explanation is that it accounts for only a fraction of the controversial gifts.

McDonnell says he didn’t know immediately about the clothes and the watch. But it’s been clear for a while from documents that the governor knew that Williams paid $15,000 for catering his daughter’s wedding and that Williams provided $120,000 to a family business and to Maureen.

Fresh revelations show he was aware of even more gifts to the family, including a Cape Cod trip and golf gear. (See article, Page A1.)

The McDonnells’ best hope to avoid prosecution is still that the U.S. attorney concludes that any favors done for Williams were routine.

If the case ends up in court, lawyer McBride predicted, a jury would be skeptical that McDonnell didn’t know about some of the gifts.

“I find it very hard to believe that a husband would not be aware that a wife had gone on a $15,000 shopping spree,” McBride said. “Those clothes would show up in a place where the husband would see them.”

As I’ve written before, McDonnell’s proper course is to provide a full and frank explanation of what happened, including explicit admissions that he erred in judgment, and ask for forgiveness.

Just as any good husband would do.

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