IN THE end, it didn’t take long. After months of legal wrangling and public spinning; after five weeks of courtroom testimony; after two hours of a judge’s instructions in the legal niceties of the case, the jury in Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell’s trial knew public corruption when it saw it. Scarcely 48 hours after they got the case, the jurors rendered their verdict with no minced words: The McDonnells are guilty.
Until today, too many politicians in Richmond had convinced themselves of the commonwealth’s alleged exceptionalism — the supposed civility and ethical uprightness of the so-called Virginia Way. Convinced of its own abiding rectitude, Virginia’s political class has refused to enact laws with teeth to hold elected officials to decent standards of conduct in carrying out the people’s business.
At the least, the McDonnell verdict should disabuse the old boys of their smug self-righteousness and their conviction that the state’s egregious absence of laws on public ethics is somehow all right. At the very least, it should end, once and for all, the common, cosseted view that legislation will not eradicate moral obtuseness. Of course it won’t; but a vacuum of laws will only encourage it.
Even after a year of lurid disclosures of the McDonnells’ outrageous conduct, lawmakers refused to take ethics seriously. They enacted new ethics laws so watered down as to be meaningless, exempting intangible gifts (such as meals, trips, vacations and tickets) from already squishy limits on giving to officeholders. Lawmakers authorized an ethics commission so toothless that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed it.
The state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, got it right after the verdict Thursday. “If there was somehow still any doubt,” he said, “it should be crystal clear that the people of Virginia deserve real ethics reform that will turn off the spigot of gifts, tickets, and trips that opens the door to abuse and undermines public confidence in our government.”
The McDonnells’ tearful astonishment at the trial’s outcome reflects their own hubris as well as the delusional attitudes in Richmond. Presented with a generous plea deal months ago, Mr. McDonnell rejected it. He was convinced he had broken no law and done nothing very exceptional for Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the favor-seeking businessman who lavished the governor and his family with gifts, loans and vacations. Just “routine . . . access to government,” Mr. McDonnell insisted.
The jurors didn’t buy it, and they shouldn’t have. Repeatedly prosecutors showed that the then-governor performed favors and granted access to Mr. Williams and his company directly after he had enjoyed the fruits of the businessman’s extraordinary generosity, which included tens of thousands of dollars in sweetheart loans.
Mr. McDonnell, guilty on 11 of 14 counts of corruption, disgraced himself, humiliated Virginia and now faces the real possibility of prison time. In all likelihood, his once-promising political career is finished.
Now it is up to Virginia lawmakers to shake themselves from their gauzy complacency and prove to Virginians that they have absorbed the lessons of the McDonnell debacle. If they fail to act, they will only compound Virginia’s disgrace.
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