No politician in recent memory has fallen so far, so fast without a sex scandal than Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Just a year ago, McDonnell was on everyone’s short list for the GOP vice presidential nod, and as recently as a few months ago was touted as a potential 2016 presidential contender. Today, McDonnell may not even finish out his term in office as governor.
For what? About $155,000 in gifts and “loans” in 2011 and 2012 from a wealthy supporter, Jonnie Williams Sr., CEO of dietary supplement manufacturer Star Scientific.
The governor couldn’t wait four years to cash in?
At first, McDonnell supporters took some solace in the fact that the revelations revolved around McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, and not the governor — like the reports that Williams picked up the first lady’s tab for a $15,000 shopping spree at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, or that after admiring Williams’ $6,500 Rolex watch, Mrs. McDonnell asked him to buy another she could give to her husband. These stories were certainly cringe-worthy, but not necessarily criminal.
Less easy to explain are the $15,000 gift from Williams to cover the catering costs of McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding when McDonnell personally signed the contract and paid deposits, the $50,000 check to McDonnell’s wife in 2011 (which the governor listed on official forms as a loan, though no money has been paid back)and the $70,000 Williams provided for a real estate limited-liability corporation owned by the governor, his wife and his sister. All this makes it far less believable that the governor might simply be a victim of his wife’s poor judgment.
Rarely has a politician thrown away so much for so little: $155,000 is chump change compared to what McDonnell could have made if he had simply waited until his term ended and gone through the “revolving door.” There is no shame in this. There are plenty of reasons why a politician may choose to leave public service for the private sector. Even politicians have financial pressures — mortgages to meet, college tuitions to pay. But the part McDonnell seems to have missed is that you actually have to wait to go through the revolving door before cashing in.
What was the hurry? The governor of Virginia is one of the highest-paid in the nation. He has free use of a mansionand carswith no gas or utility bills to pay — and unlimited prospects once he leaves office.
Unlike congressmen or senators or even governors from other states, Virginia governors are limited to one four-year term in office. If it was money McDonnell needed, he didn’t have to wait long. All he had to do was keep his nose clean for just a few years, and he would have entered the private sector as a successful, popular, highly respected former governor. Clients would have lined up — and paid dearly — for his counsel, as would have corporate boards. He could have earned more than enough to buy his own Rolex watches while preserving the option of a return to public life.
Instead he blew it — for $155,000.
To put this figure in context, former senator Chris Dodd retired from politics to become head of the Motion Picture Association of America. He now reportedly makes $2.4 million a year. In other words, McDonnell tanked his political career for the equivalent of about four weeks’ of Dodd’s pay.
The good news for McDonnell is that Dodd made his killing after choosing not to run for reelection in the wake of a financial scandal involving sweetheart mortgages Dodd received through a VIP program called “Friends of Angelo” (named after Countrywide Financial’s CEO Angelo Mozilo). At the time, Dodd was an influential member of the Senate banking committee, which had oversight over policies impacting mortgages. He’s now a multimillionaire — though the door only turns one way for him now.
Of course, in Dodd’s case, the Senate ethics committee dismissed the complaints against him. In McDonnell’s case, a federal grand jury has been impaneled to review evidence. That is a whole different level of seriousness.
Under the most optimistic scenario, in which McDonnell escapes prosecution, he may yet land well in the private sector. His wife will be able to shop at Bergdorf’s to her heart’s content. But it’s unlikely Bob McDonnell will ever hold elected office again. At a bare minimum, he is guilty of extremely poor judgment — the kind that disqualifies him from higher office.
He should have used the revolving door.