By Paul Goldman
Editor's note: Paul Goldman is a guest columnist for DecisionVirginia.com. The views expressed below are his own and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of NBC12.
Did Maureen McDonnell and the government’s star witness actually start the alleged illegal scheme together, without any participation by Governor Bob McDonnell?
The indictment alleges the corrupt scheme between Star Scientific founder Jonnie Williams and the McDonnells began “on or about April 2011.” As a matter of law, the date isn’t critical to win a conviction, but the indictment's wording got exhaustive review by federal officials. They choose to say April. This is puzzling since the indictment lists only three alleged acts in April.
(1). On or about April 11, 2011, the government claims the First Lady asked Williams to take her on a New York City shopping spree to find a dress to wear at a April 13 political event in the Big Apple. She promised get Williams an event seat next to her husband.
(2) On or about April 13, 2011, Williams delivered on the shopping and Maureen reciprocated on the seating.
(3) On or about April 29, 2011, JW and his wife attended a private dinner at the Governor’s Mansion with the McDonnells, declares the indictment. It isn’t clear whether others attended. At the dinner, "JW and his wife discussed Star Scientific’s products with the defendants.” The Williams’ also met one of the McDonnell’s daughters. They “learned“ about her June wedding date.
That’s all the alleged April evidence. The indictment then claims on or about May 2, 2011, JW met Mrs. McDonnell at the Mansion and she “informed JW that she and [her husband] were having severe financial difficulties, [and] asked JW for a $50,000 loan.” The First Lady “also told JW that she could help Star Scientific, but that she needed JW’s financial assistance.” This alleged evidence self-evidentially comes from Mr. Williams.
BUT WAIT: This occurred in MAY. The prosecution claims the illegal scheme, spurred by the McDonnells financial problems, started in April. So, why did the First Lady have to “inform” Williams of something he allegedly already knew? She also “asked for JW’s assistance” in paying the $15000 in expected wedding costs.
According to the indictment, “[B]efore agreeing to provide the requested financial assistance to the defendants, JW spoke directly with Robert McDonnell about the $50,000.” There is no approximate date given for this conversation but it had to occur in May. According to the indictment, “[I]n that conversation, Robert McDonell explained the defendant’s financial difficulties.” Williams agreed to provide a $50000 two year loan at 5%, without any paperwork.
BUT WAIT AGAIN: This too had to occur in May. The $50,000 is not a large amount for the scheme alleged by the government. Why the need to check? Moreover, the indictment doesn’t claim Williams spoke with Governor McDonnell about agreeing to cover $15,000 in wedding expenses.
THUS, THE CURIOUS TWIST
If the illegal scheme between the three began in April, why is Williams supposedly just learning about the financial motivation for the McDonnells participation? Moreover, the loan’s benefit is worth hugely less , $5,000 perhaps, to the McDonnells since it had to be quickly paid back.
The First Lady is not a public official for purposes of the federal corruption statutes at issue. As a criminal matter, she can’t violate these laws unless tied to a scheme with her husband as charged in the indictment.
Is exchanging a dress for a seat next to a governor at a political event a federal crime standing alone? This is surely not the normative view, but it can be evidence of the scheme alleged if the Governor approved the action at the time or ratified it later.
The government presents no evidence of his prior approval. Is this an implicit acknowledgement that Mrs. McDonnell and Mr. Williams initially acted together without the Governor’s knowledge? The jury is likely to want an answer to this question.