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The tide goes out / July 25, 2013
What may well be the adage for our times comes from investor Warren Buffett: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

It’s a question to ask of two men whose names have been bobbing around in the news lately: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and former Halifax County Sheriff Stanley Noblin. Each has been revealed as swimming around in a sea of need ‘n’ greed. Did we really need to see either in his proverbial birthday suit?

The downfall of our former sheriff — and the disgrace of our current governor, stay tuned, developments yet to come — marks the oldest scandal in the book: the money-grubbing grift. Still, shopworn though the tale may be, there might be something useful to be gleaned from the apparent motivations of both men, and their seeming belief they’d get away it.

First, the ex-sheriff: His guilty plea July 12 in Halifax Circuit Court hardly comes as a surprise after all this time, but it remains a source of sadness. Like a lot of folks, I always thought of Stanley Noblin as a decent fellow, and part of me still does. I listened to the recording of Noblin’s September 2012 confession to Virginia State Police accountant William Talbert, and one of the things that jumps out about the conversation is Noblin’s profession of honest intent in cooperating unhesitatingly with police. (He walked the walk, too, fessin’ up without a lawyer at his side.) At one level, what Noblin is doing is asserting a last shred of honor — which may seem ludicrous, given the circumstances. Yet those of us who have witnessed the good Stanley in action — and there is that side to our ex-sheriff — can discern a certain sincerity in his words: The sheriff did indeed come clean. It’s just striking how, all posturing for the judge’s benefit aside, he seems to feel the need for people to acknowledge this part of his personality.

A sense of neediness — together with the status and insularity that comes with being sheriff — probably led Noblin to wander out to sea in the first place. Clearly it didn’t help matters when the sheriff got on the wrong side of the economic history of the past decade, running up debts that got out of control. That’s a familiar tale, too, for many other members of the American public, a good number of whom did little or nothing to deserve the bad hand they ended up holding. (An obvious example are folks who lost their jobs in the recession. But even if you approach the matter as a cautionary tale, consider all the folks who overborrowed on their homes. It didn’t help that Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan more or less indicated it was okay to do so.) Hearing Noblin explain his credit card balances to the State Police, bills that in all likelihood carried interest charges of up to 30 percent, is to undergo a wince-worthy exercise like few others.

The least desperate — arguably the most honorable — step Noblin could have taken was bankruptcy. But in the moral and practical calculus that guides each of our lives, it’s easy to see where the sheriff might have rejected that option out of hand. He wanted to be re-elected, after all. What came next — the pilfering of funds — may well have been Noblin’s only other perceived route of escape. It was a bad perception, sure. But the delusion seemed to stick: Noblin let Special Agent Talbert know that he intended to repay every penny of the money he took. This is a familiar tale, too.

In a world where everyone seems to lament the crumbling of moral boundaries, there are times when the hammer has to come down. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that Noblin ought to pay a serious price for his misdeeds. The decision rests with the judge, of course, but I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t see things the same way. Abuse of the public trust is a shameful act, never more so than when it casts a pall on our entire system of justice. Other people are serving time for doing far less worse than Noblin. While prison terms can be excessive and counterproductive, this isn’t the time to be having that argument.

Which brings us to today’s other starring bad actor: the Governor. On Tuesday, McDonnell issued a too-little, too-late apology for his own grift-tacular acceptance of gifts from the CEO of Star Scientific, the nutritional supplement company and erstwhile savior of the Southside tobacco economy. Not coincidentally, Star has been the recipient of several low-level favors by McDonnell and his wife. Along with the apology, McDonnell took the additional step of paying back more than $124,000 to Star CEO Jonnie Williams, a “friend” who “loaned” the money to the Governor and First Lady.

This is where things get interesting: $70,000 of that sum originally went to a real estate venture owned by McDonnell and his sister that got caught up in the housing market downturn. It appears the governor was facing the same underlying problem as the sheriff: not enough money, and an easy way to get out from under his debts (and placate his wife). In some ways, McDonnell’s behavior has been as offensive as Noblin’s, if not more so. At least the sheriff never paraded around wearing a Rolex.

With stunning disregard for the gravity of his office, McDonnell chose to enrich himself even as he cheapened everything around him. True, he hasn’t stolen taxpayer dollars. But he did cross a similar, if less clear-cut, ethical boundary. Notably, in repaying Williams for his loans, the governor didn’t return the tens of thousands in gifts that he also received from his benefactor. Apparently our chief executive hasn’t quite come to grips with a reality that is plain for everyone else to see.

The question that almost always goes unanswered is these situations is this: How did McDonnell and Noblin think they’d get away with it? Both men were blind to their vulnerabilities. Again, one sees parallels: We know the governor’s former chef, Todd Schneider, has been spilling the beans on the McDonnell-Williams relationship to state and federal authorities. (Schneider has been accused of pilfering food and other items from the Governor’s Mansion. His criminal trial is ongoing.) As for the ex-Sheriff, he had a different enemy on his tail — his predecessor, Jeff Oakes, convicted of a misdemeanor offense in an end-of-term dust-up with Noblin over erased office computer data.

One imagines Noblin must not have seen Oakes as a threat, seeing as how he was on the outs of the department and presumably cut off from information. This proved to be a miscalculation. If nothing else, Oakes was a conduit for leaks coming out of the Sheriff’s Office, an eventuality as predictable as the sun setting in the west. Sheriff’s departments can be notoriously fractious places — the most vicious fights are over the smallest stakes, they say, and with what your average deputy draws in salary, it’s a wonder the workplace isn’t more like a war zone — and yet Noblin chose to ignore the risks, seemingly confident that the personnel under his command would turn a blind eye to his abuses, or simply not have a clue. It was a bad bet — and an arrogant one.

There’s been plenty of arrogance to go around with this story of our sheriff and our governor, with one man’s saga nearing its final chapter, the other’s still unfolding. I can’t foresee a good outcome ahead for either. Noblin’s facing the bigger set of problems, obviously, but in part this is due to the fact that Virginia has ridiculously lax ethics laws to govern the behavior of the governor. McDonnell may avoid jail, but he will forever be branded a fool (and Maureen McDonnell’s image has taken an even worse beating). At the end of the day, events have exposed both men as not so much venal as merely weak. In this way, Warren Buffett’s observation about naked swimmers standing in a receding tide misses the mark: Neither McDonnell nor Noblin were strong enough to avoid getting swept out to sea.

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