Even Jonnie Williams, the dietary supplement executive federal prosecutors say lavished gifts on Bob McDonnell in exchange for political favors, seemed surprised when McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, suggested the then-governor might like a Rolex.
According to an indictment filed Tuesday, Williams “expressed concern regarding whether Robert McDonnell would actually wear such a luxury watch given his role as a senior government official.”
But Maureen had noticed Williams' Rolex and “informed [him] that she would like to get one for [her husband] because he would like a Rolex,” according to the indictment. She subsequently asked Williams to buy one for him, says the indictment, which he did, and, upon instruction from Maureen, had engraved with “71st Governor of Virginia.”
A few hours after the indictment was filed, McDonnell appeared next to Maureen in the lobby of the downtown law firm Williams Mullen. He defended himself against the charges not by arguing that he hadn’t received thousands worth of gifts and loans, but by asserting that his actions were no different than those of any other lawmaker. While perhaps embarrassing, he said his actions were legal under state law.
“If [the charges] were applied even handedly to every elected official, nearly all of them, from President Obama on down, would have to be charged for providing tangible benefits to donors,” McDonnell said.
In essence, facing 40 pages of weird and troubling allegations, McDonnell threw the state, the entire General Assembly and his predecessor in the governor’s office, Tim Kaine, under the bus.
But were McDonnell’s actions really politics as usual in Richmond? Do lawmakers really do things like ask rich executives to buy them thousand dollar watches and then days later promote said executive’s interests?
Among other things, the indictment alleges that in a meeting with state health officials, McDonnell pulled some of Williams' dietary supplement, Anatabloc, out of his pocket, said it worked for him, and that they should look into it as a way to reduce the state’s employee health care costs.
That’s on top of the now-famous product launch in the Governor’s Mansion on behalf of Star Scientific, the company Williams then headed as chief executive officer. Not to mention the attendance at dinners and other corporate events, as well as encouragement from the governor that state universities conduct studies on the Anatabloc, something Williams very much needed to legitimize his non-FDA approved dietary supplement, according to the indictment.
The relationship between Williams and the McDonnells began during the election when his campaign asked to use his private jet, according to the indictment. It escalated right after McDonnell won when Maureen asked Williams to buy her an inauguration dress, because, as she explained in an email quoted in the indictment, “Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!”
By the end of his term, the McDonnells had scored many designer items, according to the indictment, along with $140,000 in cash gifts and loans, golf outings, two iPhones and 30 boxes of Anatabloc. (Full list here.)
In the Capitol on Wednesday, lawmakers’ thoughts on how out of line the McDonnell family’s actions were depended on political affiliation.
“I don’t think all elected officials are sleazy,” said state Sen. Henry Marsh, a Democrat who represents Richmond. “I’m not commenting on Gov. McDonnell, but I think it’s not a fair defense to accuse all of us of breaking the rules.”
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans weren’t rushing to condemn McDonnell. Republican Delegate Manoli Loupassi, who represents part of Richmond and surrounding counties would only say it was up to a jury to decide whether McDonnell has broken any laws.
Republican leaders, like House Speaker William J. Howell, offered the strongest support for McDonnell: “I don’t see the criminal act at this point,” he said. “I’ve seen lots of governors who have received lots of contributions from donors that agree with their policies or whatever, but I haven’t seen where they’ve necessarily done anything criminal for that.”
But asked if he thinks McDonnell’s actions are representative of what’s typical in the General Assembly, Howell demurred. “I’m going into a conference meeting,” he said as he ducked out of the hallway.
Republicans like Howell are, however, happy to point out that they began working on ethics reform months before the indictment came out. With broad support, some kind of reform is expected to pass. How much impact it will have, though, is another story.
ProgressVA, a liberal advocacy group, put out a report Wednesday saying the ethics reform compromise currently being considered wouldn’t actually ban any of the gifts McDonnell received. That’s in part because a proposed $250 gift limit only applies to gifts from registered lobbyists, who, the report says, actually give very few gifts. The legislation also distinguishes between tangible and intangible gifts. ProgressVA found that only 18 of 756 gifts in 2012 were identified as tangible. Of those, only eight exceeded the $250 threshold being considered.
“This bill is a sad excuse for ethics reform,” Anna Scholl, the group’s director, said in a statement.
Quentin Kidd, the director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, agreed with Scholl’s assessment: “I don’t know that it would change anything fundamentally,” he said.
Republican’s defended their work. “To say that the proposal doesn’t do anything, I think that’s nonsense,” said Kirk Cox, the House majority leader, standing next to Howell in the Capitol. But Kidd says he doesn’t expect far-reaching reform because he’s not seeing many of the General Assembly’s “power players” stepping up to champion it. “I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “I’m not holding my breath that there will be any major reforms.”
On the question of McDonnell’s defense -- that he didn’t do anything anyone else in politics is doing -- Kidd says that charge is likely making politicians in Virginia more than a little uneasy. “I would guess that most elected officials would not be thrilled,” he said.
Defenders have been quick to point out that all politicians accept financial support for campaigns and in exchange, it’s accepted that supporters are granted access to lawmakers who pursue certain policies on their behalf. Is what McDonnell did really that different?
Kidd said that argument becomes troubling when taken it to its logical extreme: “Are you saying that Virginia is at its core corrupt? That elected officials are literally corrupt, and that one guy got caught doing what everyone else does, and -- what? -- he should be let off the hook?”
That isn’t the case, Kidd said: Instead, it’s a situation where an official in a state with lax disclosure laws butted up against the federal government’s more stringent requirements -- namely that elected officials not take official actions in exchange for money.
“It isn’t that the entire process is corrupt in Virginia,” Kidd said. “I would reject that. I would say the standard of coziness and interconnectedness that Virginia has been willing to accept for decades and decades is much looser and more malleable than the standards that many other states are willing to accept and the standards that the federal law is willing to accept.”