How Unusual Was Virginia's Greedy Governor?

Bob McDonnellIt's tempting to assume from recent news reports that former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife were exceptionally greedy, arrogant and pathetic.

McDonnell, shown at right in a Gage Skidmore photo courtesy of Wikipedia, has admitted receiving with his wife, Maureen, a variety of luxury items they sought from a Virginia businessman.

But suppose the McDonnells, indicted last month on corruption charges shortly after his term ended, were unusual mainly because they got caught?

After all, they are still maintaining their innocence from legal liability under their state's lax laws on gifts.

Furthermore, a number of their political colleagues in Virginia have been defending their conduct.

Meanwhile, political scandals in both parties across the country in offices high and low suggest that public corruption is far more widespread than we might prefer to think.

The gifts for the McDonnells never would have come to light if a chef at the mansion had not stirred up an investigation against his former employer.

How many other scandals exist with no one bothering to check?

Our in-depth research on top candidates for both parties suggests that they face huge pressures to raise large sums for their campaigns in fund-raising efforts that almost inevitably lead to gratitude to donors. Corner-cutting in the process then can lead to lax attention also to differences that are supposed to exist between official and personal expenses.

In sum, we can safely assume that abuses in the McDonnell case are occurring elsewhere. 


Editor's Note: This column is part of our expanded coverage at the Justice Integrity Project whereby we pose brief, provocative thoughts, supported by news clippings. 
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Related News Coverage

Virginia Indictments

Maureen McDonnellAt left, Maureen McDonnell is shown at left in her in her 2010 inaugural ball gown in a portrait unveiled in 2012. She organized an effort to have portraits made of all living former Virginia governor's wives.

Washington Post, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., key witness against McDonnells, has a complicated past, Rosalind S. Helderman and Laura Vozzella, Feb. 3, 2014. For the father of laser eye surgery, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. literally came from the heavens. Williams, a charming salesman with a taste for the good life and the grand gesture, flew in on his private jet to present the struggling engineer in California in 1989 with a proposal. Williams would help Charles Munnerlyn take his fledgling California company public, providing the start-up capital needed to survive lean years until it could win Food and Drug Administration approval of Munnerlyn’s newfangled laser. It worked. The device eventually received approval, and the company, called Visx, was sold in 2004 for more than $1.2 billion. By then, Williams — who this summer is expected to appear as the star witness in the federal corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell — was long gone. He had sold his shares, pocketed his profits and moved on to other ventures in a career that has relied on making risky investments in unproven sciences and getting others to do the same. A few, such as Visx, have proved spectacularly successful. Others have flamed out, including an eye-care company that went bankrupt amid a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint Williams settled in 1993. Throughout, he has acquired a reputation as a man who has used his growing wealth and personal appeal to collect powerful friends. Williams’s history of big and sometimes broken promises is likely to play a central role in the July trial of McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, who were indicted last month and accused of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Williams in exchange for assisting his dietary supplement company.

Washington Post, Indictments provide new details of dealings between Williams, McDonnells, Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind Helderman, Jan. 21, 2014. The indictments of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, reveal new details about the first couple’s requests for financial help and luxury items from a prominent businessman at the same time the pair was offering to help promote his company’s new product, Anatabloc, according to prosecutors. Here are some examples from the federal government’s charging documents.

Washington Post, ‘I did nothing illegal,’ Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind Helderman, Jan. 21, 2014. McDonnell says the case is an overreach.

Washington Post, Former Va. governor may not discuss case with witnesses, Matt Zapotosky, Feb. 3, 2014. A federal judge on Monday ruled that former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, who are facing corruption charges, can not have “substantive discussions about the case” with potential witnesses. The ruling by Magistrate Judge David J. Novak excludes those who could be called only as character witnesses.

Mother Jones, Here's Why Bob McDonnell Just Got Indicted, A guide to the corruption charges facing the former Virginia governor and his wife, Dana Liebelson and Tim Murphy, Jan. 21, 2014.  On Tuesday, a federal grand jury indicted former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on 14 counts related to gifts the couple accepted from a businessman looking to curry favor with the McDonnell administration. In a statement, McDonnell apologized for his actions but maintained that he never did anything illegal. The charges could put the couple behind bars for decades and carry a fine of more than $1 million. But prominent political couples don't normally receive maximum sentences.

Washington Post, Bob and Maureen McDonnell, businessman bonded over financial needs, prosecutors say, Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman, Jan. 25, 2014. In their first real conversation beyond brief pleasantries, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and the soon-to-be first couple of Virginia found themselves in a swanky hotel lounge in New York, chatting about a dress. Maureen McDonnell fretted to the Richmond area businessman about expenses for her husband’s coming inaugural and wondered aloud whether she could ever afford a sufficiently elegant gown. The wealthy businessman didn’t know the couple well, having spoken with the then-candidate only in passing. He had earned this private audience in December 2009 by lending Robert F. McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign his private plane earlier that year. The relationship culminated in the dramatic downfall of a onetime presidential hopeful. Behind the scenes, Star Scientific desperately needed validation and trust in its new product line. And the McDonnells needed a financial patron, as they privately struggled with mounting debt and clung at times to a luxury life beyond the means of a public servant.

Washington Post, McDonnell, wife charged; Ex-Va. governor allegedly took gifts, vacations, loans, Rosalind S. Helderman, Carol D. Leonnig and Sari Horwitz, Jan. 21, 2014. Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen were charged Tuesday with illegally accepting gifts, luxury vacations and large loans from a wealthy Richmond-area businessman who sought special treatment from state government. Authorities alleged that McDonnell and his wife received gifts from executive Jonnie Williams again and again, lodging near constant requests for money, clothes, trips, golf accessories and private plane rides. In exchange, authorities alleged that the McDonnells worked in concert to lend the prestige of the governorship to Williams’s struggling company, a small former cigarette manufacturer that now sells dietary supplements.

Harvey SilverglateWall Street Journal, Justice Goes After the GOP, Harvey Silverglate, left, Jan. 30, 2014. Investigating Chris Christie's administration, indicting another prominent Republican. Is it political? Is Eric Holder's Justice Department driven by a political agenda, or are the department's recent prosecutorial decisions simply signs of over-zealousness? The Justice Department has focused on two prominent Republicans, announcing a corruption indictment of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and launching an active and very public criminal investigation into the antics of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's administration. In doing so, federal prosecutors have created at least the appearance that they are targeting two men who have been touted as plausible candidates for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

 Washington Post, Ex-Va. governor rejected deal that would spare wife, Rosalind S. Helderman and Carol D. Leonnig, Jan. 23, 2014. Authorities proposed that then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell plead guilty to one felony bank fraud charge that had nothing to do with corruption in office and his wife, Maureen, would avoid charges altogether.

Washington Post, Va. lawmakers scrutinize past gifts, ponder ethics overhaul, Rachel Weiner, Jan. 30, 2014. Current members of the Virginia General Assembly accepted more than $260,000 in gifts last year.


Catching Our Attention on other Justice, Media & Integrity Issues

New Republic, Chris Christie's Entire Career Reeks It's not just the bridge, Alex MacGillis, Feb. 12, 2014. Has there ever been a political reversal of fortune as rapid and as absolute as the one just experienced by Chris Christie?  even post-Bridgegate, the prevailing interpretations of Christie fundamentally miss the mark. He has been so singularly successful at constructing his own mythology—as a reformer, a crusader, a bipartisan problem-solver—that people have never really seen him clearly. Over the past three months, I talked to more than 50 people who have crossed paths with Christie throughout his career—legislators, officials, Democrats, Republicans, lawyers, longtime New Jersey politicos. (Christie himself didn’t respond to a detailed request for comment.) The problem with Christie isn’t merely that he is a bully. It’s that his political career is built on a rotten foundation. Christie owes his rise to some of the most toxic forces in his state—powerful bosses who ensure that his vow to clean up New Jersey will never come to pass. He has allowed them to escape scrutiny, rewarded them for their support, and punished their enemies. All along, even as it looked like Christie was attacking the machine, he was really just mastering it.

Boston Globe, Case should not be tried by feds in the first place, Harvey A. Silverglate, Feb. 4, 2014. Attorney General Eric Holder and his colleagues in the US attorney’s office in Boston are calling for the death penalty for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The debate over their wisdom, or lack thereof, in doing so misses the main point. The case should have been prosecuted by the Suffolk County district attorney, not the federal Department of Justice. The primary party of interest is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its people. The crime was committed here, allegedly by Tsarnaev and his deceased brother. A trial in Suffolk Superior Court would probably take a few weeks at most, followed, in the event of a conviction, by mandatory review by the Supreme Judicial Court.

Star-Ledger /, Christie should quit GOP governors organization, Editorial Board, Jan. 26, 2013. Gov. Chris Christie is fresh off a fundraising trip to Florida as head of the Republican Governors Association, and is now scheduled to travel to Utah, Illinois, Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts and Connecticut. During those trips, the business of running the state of New Jersey will take a back seat. And no doubt there will be many more trips when these are done. This is great for Christie’s career, but terrible for New Jersey. Given that, he should step down.

Trey RadelWashington Post, Embattled Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) to resign, Sean Sullivan, Jan. 27, 2014. Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), right, plans to resign from Congress Monday, months after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge, his office confirmed. Radel, a first-term congressman, was arrested for cocaine possession last fall. After reaching a plea agreement, he underwent drug rehabilitation treatment and returned to Congress earlier this month. Despite pleas from party leaders for him to step down, Radel had said he was committed to returning to his job representing the people of his district. But on Monday, Radel's chief of staff Dave Natonski confirmed to Post Politics that Radel plans to submit a letter explaining his decision to resign. Politico first reported the news. Gov. Rick Scott (R) will set the date for the special election to fill Radel's seat. Radel comes from a heavily conservative district where Mitt Romney won more than six out of 10 votes in 2012. His exit is expected to trigger a competitive GOP primary contest. A former TV news reporter, Radel won 30 percent of the primary vote in a crowded 2012 field.

Huffington Post, Rich Businessman Compares Treatment Of The Rich To The Holocaust, Alexis Kleinman, Jan. 25, 2014. Venture capitalist Thomas Perkins wrote a letter to the editors at the Wall Street Journal, comparing the plight of the rich to the Holocaust, called "Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?"... and the WSJ published it. Thomas Perkins, right, one of the founders of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, was comparing taxes on the super rich to the slaughter of millions in the Holocaust. Perkins ends his rant with: "This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent 'progressive' radicalism unthinkable now?", Kleiner Perkins distances itself from controversial Tom Perkins editorial defending the rich,  Dean Takahashi, Jan. 26, 2014. Tom Perkins didn’t make any friends yesterday with a letter to the Wall Street Journal that compared critics of the rich to the persecutors of Jews in Nazi Germany. And KPCB itself has distanced itself from him. The swift criticism of Perkins’ letter shows the sensitivity in the tech world to the issue of fairness toward the poor, particularly in San Francisco, where the growing affluence of tech citizens is raising rents and driving out longtime residents who are part of the 99 percent. Perkins criticized the protests against Google buses and the Occupy movement. He said the “progressive radicalism” against the rich could instigate a new “Kristallnacht,” or the “night of broken glass” when the Nazis rounded up Jews in pre-World War II Germany and Austria in 1938. About 91 Jews were killed in the attacks, and 30,000 were arrested. In a tweet, KPCB said, “Tom Perkins has not been involved in KPCB in years. We were shocked by his views expressed today in the WSJ and do not agree.” Clearly, the venture firm that backed companies like Google, Amazon, and Genentech doesn’t want to embroil itself in a debate that will cost it some venture business. See also, Fortune Magazine, Tom Perkins' hot venture, A legendary investor aims to be a racy novelist with his new book 'Sex and the Single Zillionaire,' David Whitford, FSB editor at large, Feb. 17, 2006. Tom Perkins needs no help meeting women, thank you very much. The co-founder of Kleiner Perkins (, the most storied VC firm in Silicon Valley, is tall and fit. He has lively eyes, a strong jaw, and a good head of hair. He looks cool in an English pinstriped suit. His new boat, the Maltese Falcon, launching this month from Istanbul, is longer than your boat; at 289 feet, it's the longest private sailboat in the world.

New York Times, The Koch Party, Editorial Board, JaN. 25, 2014. Only a few weeks into this midterm election year, the right-wing political zeppelin is fully inflated with secret cash and is firing malicious falsehoods at supporters of health care reform. As Carl Hulse of The Times reported recently, Democrats have been staggered by a $20 million advertising blitz produced by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group organized and financed by the Koch brothers, billionaire industrialists. The ads take aim at House and Senate candidates for re-election who have supported the health law, and blame them for the hyped-up problems with the law’s rollout that now seem to be the sole plank in this year’s Republican platform.