“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupt absolutely," said Lord Acton. Judging by the sordid details of the federal indictment of Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, the former Virginia governor succumbed, with an embarrassing sense of entitlement, to the temptations presented by his position. His fall from grace shows once again why the Founders were determined to limit the powers of government at all levels.
The tawdry details of the McDonnell's relationship with Jonnie Williams, a Virginia pharmaceutical entrepreneur, read like something out of the golden age of tabloids. As the Washington Examiner's Byron York wrote, the Department of Justice indictment paints a picture in which "the corrupt acts of the 71st governor of Virginia and his wife had their beginning even before Bob McDonnell took the oath of office. Virginia's new First Couple allegedly hoped to start cashing in before they officially became the First Couple."
Maureen McDonnell hit up Williams (referred to as "JW" in the indictment) to buy an Oscar de la Renta dress for her to wear to her husband's inauguration. She didn't ultimately wear the dress but many more grasping requests followed. The government's indictment described what followed from one of those requests:
"On or about April 13, 2011, JW accompanied Maureen McDonnell to several luxury stores in New York City, including Oscar de la Renta, Louis Vuitton, and Bergdorf Goodman. Maureen McDonnell informed JW that she needed dresses and accessories for her daughter's upcoming wedding and for her and Robert McDonnell’s upcoming anniversary party. JW paid for the entire luxury shopping trip for Maureen McDonnell and spent approximately $10,999 at Oscar de la Renta, approximately $5,685 at Louis Vuitton, and approximately $2,604 at Bergdorf Goodman. As promised by Maureen McDonnell, JW was seated next to Robert McDonnell at the Union League Club event later that evening."
The former governor insists that, while he showed poor judgment in the relationship with Williams, he did nothing illegal. Being Virginia’s former attorney general, McDonnell certainly should know the law, especially as it applies to high government officials. Perhaps a jury will agree with McDonnell that he didn’t violate the letter of the law, but his actions clearly left the spirit of the law in the mud.
All of that said, it would be unfortunate if tawdriness is the only aspect of the McDonnell scandal that is viewed as significant. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence of the governor influencing a state regulatory decision in a manner sought by Williams on behalf of his business. But Williams offered and the McDonnells accepted more than $100,000 in loans, apparently without written documentation. No one can be blamed for suspecting that Williams expected something in return.