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Court TV, here we come
SoVaNow.com / January 23, 2014The morning after news broke of criminal charges against Virginia’s former governor and first lady, Robert and Maureen McDonnell, I finally had a chance to sit down and wade through the 14-count indictment filed by federal prosecutors, all 43 pages of it. Hoo boy. It’s pretty clear where this thing is headed — it’s going to be a gas for the lawyers, not so much fun for everyone else. This is Virginia’s version of the O.J. trial, minus all the blood. What do you figure Judge Ito is up to these days?
Seriously. Every good citizen should read the indictment, the first-ever against a Virginia governor. (It’s easily obtainable on the Internet.) If I thought long and hard enough about it, I probably could come up with a few decent ideas for how McDonnells might beat the rap for their alleged misdeeds — public corruption, misuse of office, accepting bribes and then lying about it — but then no one’s paying me $350 an hour for the service, so the heck with that. Otherwise, the overwhelming impression from a quick first read is: What an unbelievably greasy, sleazy First Couple the McDonnells turned out to be — it’s all so much worse than what we already thought we knew prior to Tuesday’s announcement by the U.S. Attorney.
This case’s got something for everyone, from chin-strokers who derive high-minded pleasure weighing the impact of scandals on our system of democracy to the gender warriors who’ll no doubt have all kinds of interesting things to say about Virginia’s ex-First Lady. The next-to-last page of the indictment is consumed by various items the McDonnells will forfeit in the event of a conviction, from the Louis Vuitton handbags to the Rolex watch to the “blue Armani jacket and two matching dresses.” The feds are even going after the governor’s Notre Dame golf bag. Ouch.
Thanks to the intrepid reporting of The Washington Post, and smart commentary from higher-ups in the press — the Times-Dispatch’s Jeff Shapiro springs immediately to mind, but there are others — there’s probably not a lot I can add to the McDonnell saga that hasn’t been better said somewhere else. (Not that this is going to stop me.) One thing I do know: I could venture an opinion so stupid as to insult the intelligence of an amoeba and it wouldn’t come close to the awesomebadness of the reaction of Democratic State Senate leader Richard Saslaw, who, in sticking up for the ex-governor this week, offered that he has “served with some guys a lot shadier than Bob McDonnell … Either you think he’s a criminal and you indict him, or you don’t and you don’t indict him. That’s my position.” (I guess Saslaw got his answer on that one.)
Side note to Virginia Republicans: I do hope you guys and gals get down on your knees every day and thank the Lord Almighty that Virginia Democrats are led by the likes of Dick Saslaw. With such competition for power in Richmond, who needs to get off the sofa?
The story of the McDonnells’ involvement with Star Scientific founder Jonnie Williams, who comes across in the pages of the indictment as a man who through some weird genetic mutation must be made out of money, opens with a simple premise: Star Scientific had a problem, and it needed help. Star’s main business was producing a dietary supplement, Anatabloc, that supposedly reduces inflammation associated with conditions such as arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and others. The problem? The company had no real evidence for this claim, certainly not nearly enough to gain FDA approval to market Anatabloc as a pharmaceutical, which if it had worked out that way would have opened the door for Star to rake in the really big bucks. Much desirous of legitimacy, Star sought out a patron who could help the company score grant funding for the expensive clinical trials that would be required before Star could earn the FDA seal of approval. Who did Star CEO Williams turn to? Enter the Dragon Lady.
As depicted by prosecutors, Maureen McDonnell is an almost comically corrupt figure, with practically every page of the indictment insinuating that she ran over her callow and only slightly less sticky-fingered husband whenever the need arose to hit up the Star Scientific ATM. (Perhaps the indictment’s most priceless anecdote is Mrs. McDonnell’s alleged attempt to cover up her acceptance of Williams-purchased dresses and accessories for her daughter Cailin’s wedding. After the feds started sniffing around, Mrs. McDonnell returned the boxed-up gifts with a honeyed note to Williams suggesting that the Oscar de la Renta-Louis Vuitton-Bergdorf Goodman store-bought garb would make wonderful hand-me-downs for his daughter, or, if not that, perfect items to donate to charity auction. “Actually, if that happens I think I’ll be there to bid on them myself!” the note chirped. “Please know that we cherish our friendship with you and look forward to many more wonderful memories together ahead!” The note, signed “XOXO! Maureen McDonnell” is a classic in the That-Was-Then genre of American letters.
From such a rarified political and social position (with the graceful manners to match), the McDonnells had a platform from which to lend aid to Williams and Star — pressing health department officials and university researchers to see what could be done to advance Star’s medical claims — which is the quid pro quo upon which the accusations of criminality ensue. The helpful actions by Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell, if prosecutors are to be believed, were alternately garish and grubby. In the former category is the allegation that both defendants seemed to be totally down with Jonnie Williams’ insane idea of using Virginia state employees as a clinical pool to test Anatabloc’s efficacy as an anti-inflammatory. Yes, that’s an actual accusation in the indictment: that the McDonnells toyed with the idea of using the state workforce as guinea pigs for Star Scientific. The mind reels.
(It’s all there in the true bill, starting on page 19: “During the flights, MAUREEN MCDONNELL, JW [Jonnie Williams], and a research scientist who consulted for Star Scientific discussed the potential health benefits of Anatabloc® and the need for clinical studies,” prosecutors write. “The next day, the research scientist sent MAUREEN MCDONNELL an email summarizing the discussions on board JW’s aircraft. In the email, the research scientist wrote about the lack of data regarding the number of people who suffer from autoimmune and chronic inflammatory conditions. He stated that ‘it would be of value to perform a study of Virginia government employees ... to determine the prevalences [sic] of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.’” The indictment further notes that the Star researcher wanted to know if the employees — presumably volunteers, although the point is never quite explained — would react favorably to anatabine, the supplement’s active ingredient. Mrs. McDonnell shared the note to her husband who, months later, pressed his Secretary of Administration to ponder ways Virginia could reduce health care costs for the state workforce while volunteering that he personally used Anatabloc and “that it was working well for him.” I am sorry to have to inform Dick Saslaw that for a sitting governor and his wife to even entertain such a crazy suggestion marks them both as abominably awful creatures, and if Richmond is overrun by politicians whose ethical compasses are even more broken than the McDonnells then clearly someone needs to call in the airstrikes now.
The prosaic side of the scandal? That would be the presumed source of the grant funding for Star’s would-be clinical trials, the Virginia Tobacco Commission. I was wondering when the Tobacco Commission would ever figure into the Star scandal — actually, I’ve been dumbfounded that it wasn’t a part of the story at the start, given the Commission’s predilection for funding just about any ol’ dodgy operation with a connection to tobacco, however tenuous — and so the Justice Department indictment, if nothing else, clears up one of the biggest mysteries of this entire affair. Williams had his eye on the Tobacco Commission kitty from the get-go, as did subsequently McDonnell, and it’s clear both men thought the Commission would be the easiest place to go to get the considerable sums needed to pay for a study.
The hilarious thing is that both seemed to view Tobacco Commission approval as a foregone conclusion, the outfit being controlled by legislators who are tools in the Dick Saslaw mode, albeit with less utility. Yet there was a problem: The Commission has rules barring research grants to for-profit entities. So Star needed a research institution — U.Va., VCU or the like — to agree to front the study. Governors obviously can be helpful in convincing academic types to lend their reputations to research initiatives, but sadly for the Star gang, the pointy-headed academics refused to go along with the scheme. So if you’re looking for good guys out of this mess, there they are. You can also reserve a kind thought for the health policy wonks and other bureaucrats in state government who seemed to realize the Star request was a crock and did much more to protect the integrity of state government than the governor and his wife probably ever imagined. Of course, for this display of decency and honor, their reward is likely to be an order compelling them to testify at the McDonnells’ trials. No good deed goes unpunished, dontcha know.
Yes, the McDonnells are innocent until proven guilty. I won’t even be too surprised if they avoid conviction; the governor, speaking at a press conference after the indictment came out, may be on to something when he argued the charges are based on a “misguided legal theory” — the theory being it should be illegal for politicians to do favors for people who stuff tens of thousands of dollars in their pockets (and outfit their wives in Armani). Who knows how well that contention will hold up once the defense lawyers get going? O.J. did, after all, walk in the end. But to borrow the riff-making of his lawyers, if there is a stain, it will remain. Read the indictment, and weep.