A Fiscal Hawk With Expensive Taste

Jan 23 2014 @ 4:45pm

In an 14-count indictment, prosecutors tell the tale of the bizarre, years-long relationship that former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen had with Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company peddling an anti-inflammatory diet supplement. The first couple accepted gifts from “JW”, as he’s referred to in the indictment, of everything from $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding to golf trips, vacations, and loans to prop up the couple’s rental properties. Perhaps one of the weirdest highlights of the indictment (and there’s plenty of weird there) is a proposal to test Williams’s cure-all supplement on Virginia civil servants:

In August 2011, following an email from Bob McDonnell to Virginia’s secretary of health, Maureen McDonnell met at the Executive Mansion with Williams and one of the secretary’s senior policy advisors. At that meeting, according to the indictment, Williams discussed the idea of having Virginia government employees use Anatabloc, Star Scientific’s anti-inflammatory dietary supplement, “as a control group for research studies.” This wasn’t the only time this kind of idea came up. In October 2011, according to the indictment, Maureen McDonnell accompanied Williams and a research scientist who consulted for Star Scientific to a company event in Grand Blanc, Mich. … The scientist later emailed Maureen McDonnell a summary of their discussions. In it, he suggested it might be useful “to perform a study of Virginia government employees… to determine the prevalences [sic] of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.”

Byron York wonders why the hell McDonnell didn’t have the patience to wait for the perfectly legitimate corruption that awaited him after he left office:

A former governor can make a lot of money. He can cash in on the influence he still has after leaving the statehouse. But if the indictment is correct, the McDonnells, in debt and wanting to drive Ferraris and wear Rolexes and play golf at swanky courses, couldn’t wait, even four years, for the payoff. And that is the story of United States v. Robert F. McDonnell and Maureen G. McDonnell.

The petty sleaze is what does it for Amy Davidson:

Like the maddest sort of sex scandal, the greed is both unbounded and imaginatively constrained. A catering bill? Two golf bags? It’s like hearing about a politician sexting or seeing a prostitute and asking oneself, He gave it all up for that? … It’s the sort of scandal that, in all its tackiness, can be an indicator of a deeper mess—a gold Oscar de la Renta canary in the political coal mines.

The McDonnells’ reputations may be ruined, but making the charges stick will be much harder:

It’s all very distasteful. But Bob McDonnell has a strong argument when he says he didn’t do anything illegal. It’s acceptable under Virginia law for politicians to accept gifts, if they are properly reported. And while the McDonnells both did things aimed at helping Williams’ business (such as having a launch party at the mansion and endorsing the supplement), it’s very, very hard to prove there was a quid pro quo. McDonnell did not push legislation to help Williams or, according to the indictment, participate in some direct and obvious payback.

Needless to say, the Republican’s misdeeds contrast pretty strongly with his political positions:

Perhaps another lesson is that fiscal conservatism is a myth for many who spout it most vociferously. The man who campaigned on fiscal-minded sobriety, largely charmed the commonwealth with his soft-spoken political style, and achieved hugely popular reforms on kitchen-table issues—including mass-transit reform, pension reform, and education—was fundamentally incapable of walking the walk when it came to his own life: He successfully governed like a sober fiscal conservative while he opted to live like he was Lord Grantham.

Which Alec MacGillis thinks hurt the Republican brand:

[I]t’s precisely McDonnell’s remaking of himself into a pro-business conservative that makes his indictment on federal corruption charges so potentially damaging to the Republican Party. The party’s establishment leaders, and their associated boosters in the conservative press and think tankery, have tried hard to differentiate responsible, business-minded Republicans who care only about cutting taxes and blocking the expansion of Medicaid from Paleolithic social-issues conservatives like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock who prattle on about “legitimate rape” and pregnancies from rape being “something that God intended to happen.”

Mark Kleiman believes the lesson here is about the American obsession with wealth and status:

One of the many problems that flows from increasing inequality of income and wealth is that the standards of the rich become the ruling standards. Mrs. McDonnell obviously felt that she would be disgraced if she appeared at her husband’s inaugural ball in the sort of dress an honest public servant’s wife could afford, when all the fundraisers’ wives – to say nothing of the female fundraisers – would be wearing a large fraction of the median annual household income. Does that excuse her committing extortion to get an Oscar de la Renta dress? Of course not. But it testifies to a corruption of manners that goes far deeper than corruption in office.

Update from a reader:

I am as appalled at the greed of former Gov. McDonnell and his wife as anyone, but Kleiman’s article about the couple has a real historical clunker in it: “But there’s one deeply, deeply twisted element to the story that ought to worry all of us. McDonnell was the Governor of Virginia, the successor of Jefferson. And he wanted a Rolex watch.” Thomas Jefferson was perpetually in debt, thanks in large part to his habit of living well beyond his means. This is even acknowledged on the official Monticello website.