A shocking moment for Virginia


“Pride goeth before the fall” doesn’t begin to cover it. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were charged Tuesday with, as The Washington Post reported, “illegally accepting gifts, luxury vacations and large loans from a wealthy Richmond-area businessman who sought special treatment from state government. Authorities alleged that for nearly two years, the McDonnells hit up executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. again and again, lodging near constant requests for large loans, clothes, trips, golf accessories and private plane rides.”

Every defendant, including the McDonnells, deserves the presumption of innocence. In a statement, Bob McDonnell reiterated his apology for taking gifts from Williams, then the chief executive of Star Scientific, but asserted that he never did anything illegal. And we all know that the Justice Department, which is prosecuting this case, has had more than one case questioning public integrity unravel (ahem, Ted Stevens).

All that said, you can’t read the 43-page indictment without being floored by the McDonnells’ alleged multiple, ongoing and personal interventions to obtain riches from Williams. The indictment ticks off e-mails, calls and documents in which the two allegedly scheme to get loans, hide them from financial institutions and avoid reporting requirements.

Some Republicans sympathetic to the former governor have postulated that Maureen McDonnell was really the bad actor, attempting to live a lavish lifestyle that she and her husband could not afford. But if the allegations are true, then the former governor was more than simply a distracted spouse. He was a full participant not only in obtaining monies but also in nudging state officials to act on Star Scientific’s behalf.

For those who knew Bob McDonnell over two decades in Virginia politics, the allegations — as detailed and as damning as they appear — come as a shock. He was, to most observers, a straight arrow. Whether he is eventually convicted of any crime, McDonnell, as he has acknowledged, violated the public’s trust.

As unfortunate as it may be, his entire tenure as governor — education reforms, transportation funding, the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons and more — is virtually beside the point. He has become the only Virginia governor ever indicted. In the commonwealth — which, unlike Louisiana or Illinois, has not had a stream of felon governors — this is an unprecedented low in politics.

It should be a bracing moment for politicians of both parties. Greed is a powerful force, leading people to gross misjudgments. Combined with the self-delusion that accompanies power (They love me! I’m sacrificing for the public! I am above reproach!), this makes for a toxic and devastating brew.

Before the Star Scientific story broke last year, McDonnell was a plausible presidential candidate. Now he will be pressed to stay out of jail. That is as steep and sudden as any political collapse we’ve seen.

Excerpted from washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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