WASHINGTON, August 30, 2014 — Robert F. McDonnell is guilty of much, but not as charged. He is charged with bribery and corruption while serving as Virginia’s governor. His wife is charged with conspiring with him.
The prosecution’s case did not have the goods; neither the ex-governor nor his wife should be convicted of the major charges against them. The beauty, or wonder of the legal system, however, is that juries do not always reach verdicts consistent with the letter of the law. The McDonnells face significant jail time if convicted.
It is alleged that the couple accepted bribes from businessman Jonnie Williams, in connection with his efforts to use them to promote a product his company was selling.
The soap-opera trial exposed marital problems and the couple’s financial woes. It will soon come to an end, as closing arguments have been made and the case will be going to the jury.
The ex-governor will not be found guilty of accepting bribes because the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he provided anything at all real or specific to Jonnie Williams, or to Williams’ company, Star Scientific, in exchange for William’s largess, estimated at $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the highest standard in the law, because a finding of criminal guilt can potentially take away freedom, or even life. The McDonnells cannot be convicted if the jury concludes that they are only “probably guilty.”
Many states place significant restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to elected officials. In some states, such gifts are simply illegal. Williams was not a lobbyist.
Many states’ laws do not completely prohibit gift-giving by non-lobbyists; some states limit the monetary value of those gifts.
Most states prohibit elected officials from accepting any gift or anything of value in return for being influenced in the performance of their duties.
In Virginia, the law, summarized, is this:
No elected official shall accept any money, loan, gift, favor, service, or business or professional opportunity that reasonably tends to influence him in the performance of his official duties.
“Gift” means any gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other item having monetary value. It includes services as well as gifts of transportation, local travel, lodgings and meals, whether provided in-kind, by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred.
The prosecution’s case was not strong enough to convict McDonnell of bribery, nor to convict McDonnell and his wife of conspiracy.
The prosecutor, in his closing argument, effectively acknowledges that his case is weak, and will rely on credibility, rather than solid evidence, telling jurors that if they believe the ex-governor’s testimony, they should probably acquit.
The prosecution insists, however, that there is ample evidence to support the contention that McDonnell lied about the gifts he and his family received from Williams, and that the actions he and his wife took provided “something of value” to Williams.
The prosecution can prevail in even if nothing was actually delivered to Williams. A conviction can be obtained if McDonnell intended to deliver something. Unfortunately for the prosecution, there simply is not enough evidence to prove that intent.
Consider the “best” of the prosecution’s evidence and the defenses to that evidence:
- The McDonnells held what was described as an “unofficial” launch party for a tobacco-derived dietary supplement, Anatabloc, that Williams wanted promoted. Williams claimed it could treat ulcers, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. (Later, under pressure from the FDA, Williams’s company took it off of the market). The prosecution said that Mrs. McDonnell “touted” it at medical conferences.
Mrs. McDonnell was not a public official. Her actions therefore cannot be criminally characterized as taking bribes. The prosecution must prove that she conspired with her husband in order to make its case against her. The conspiracy theory was hurt by the ex-governor’s testimony that Mrs. McDonnell took gifts without his knowledge, that she did so “behind his back.”
- Two emails, sent six minutes apart, purportedly show McDonnell’s intent to help Williams. The first, from McDonnell to Williams, involved finalizing a $50,000 loan from Williams. In the second, McDonnell asks a top aide about problems in setting up studies of Anatabloc at two Virginia public universities. Williams wondered if the studies would bolster the drug’s credibility. Neither university agreed to conduct the studies.
McDonnell says the email was nothing more than he would do for any Virginia-based business.
McDonnell’s attorney: “Jonnie didn’t get anything. Nothing. This case is all ‘quid,’ no ‘quo.’”
In a criminal setting, the law requires that the prosecution prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a crime occurred. Circumstantial evidence and innuendo have been the basis for many criminal convictions. In McDonnell’s case, that is all the prosecution produced. By strict application of the law, neither McDonnell nor his wife should be convicted of the major charges.
Mitt Romney considered McDonnell as a vice-presidential running mate. Even without a conviction, the prosecution destroyed McDonnell’s image and reputation. Assuming he is not convicted of the corruption charge, McDonnell will move on. He is not the first politician to be thoroughly embarrassed. Unfortunately, and predictably, he will not be the last. Some made comebacks (locally Marion Barry comes to mind), and some did not. McDonnell claims that he made mistakes, but he maintains that he neither promised nor delivered any favors to Williams.
McDonnell’s ethics here were shown to be effectively non-existent. While Virginia’s law did not prohibit taking gifts, it is simply wrong for elected officials to take personal gifts, cash and loans from people seeking favors and benefits.
McDonnell is an attorney. He was Virginia’s top attorney, the Attorney General! Attorney ethics in every state dictate that an attorney must avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
McDonnell clearly felt that his governorship entitled him. So did his wife.
It is wrong to fail to fully disclose gifts, cash and loans. McDonnell acknowledged his “bad judgment” by apologizing to Virginians.
“I, as governor, allowed my life to get out of balance,” McDonnell testified, referring to Williams’ gifts. “That was my error.”
The prosecution also successfully destroyed Maureen McDonnell, Robert’s wife. By charging the couple with conspiracy to grant Williams favors, evidence was needed to disprove the conspiracy. It was sad to see and hear about the McDonnell’s marriage and their finances. Mrs. McDonnell was shown to be mean, and the boss from hell, someone no-one would ever want as an employer.
Virginia’s new governor put a clamp on donations, limiting them in amount to $100.00.
Virginia will move on, harmed not much. Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell will move on as well, harmed severely, and appropriately.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
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