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 opinions of NBC12.
Having now heard the prosecutors both present their case and cross-examine the main defendant, the news media naturally asks the question: Has the government proven its case? But let me humbly suggest a more correct way to phrase the question: To date, what case has the government actually proved to a moral certainty as required?
Several years ago, the government suspected their star accuser, Mr. Jonnie Williams, former Governor Bob McDonnell, and former First Lady Maureen McDonnell had entered into a corrupt quid-pro-quo-bargain as outlawed by the key corruption statutes. According to the government’s star investigator, Mr. Williams faced a potentially ruinous – to both himself and his company Star Scientific Inc. - federal securities probe into $tens of millions in stock transactions. At around the same time, state investigators had become curious about a roughly $15000 catering bill connected to a wedding of one of the McDonnell’s daughters. Within a few months, state investigators began considering whether to ask the federal government to give Williams immunity in order to use him to get the McDonnell’s.
Williams realized the prosecution wanted a “trophy” for the wall. He used this knowledge to play hardball. Eventually, prosecutor’s had no choice but to give him the most generous “get out of jail free card” federal Department of Justice veterans could remember in exchange for being the key federal witness against the McDonnell’s. Mr. Williams is no fool.
What did he actually say on the stand?
Despite admitting to outwardly pretending to have a benign, non-corrupt reason for helping the former Governor and the former First Lady, Mr. Williams claimed he always harbored a hidden corrupt motive. Despite the outward smokescreen, Mr. Williams said the former Governor should have known the truth: namely, Williams expected illegal governmental help for Star in exchange for giving $1770000 in cash, gifts and loans at issue in the trial.
To get a conviction, the government does not have to prove what former Governor McDonnell actually knew as regards Mr. Williams’ expectations. All a jury need conclude is a reasonable person in Mr. McDonnell’s person should have known what Mr. Williams’ secretly wanted despite what the Henrico businessman might have actually said.
Ergo: Hopefully you now beginning to see my moral dilemma. Mr. McDonnell has risked everything to take the stand and deny he ever made, explicit or implicit, a corrupt quid-pro-quo deal with Mr. Williams or had been told anything by Mr. Williams to make the former Governor believe the Star founder expected such a deal now or in the future.
Since Williams said he had no explicit deal, and the 3.5 million documents the government boasted of checking didn’t provide a “smoking gun”, prosecutors have been left to make their case relying solely on circumstantial evidence.
Hopefully, my moral dilemma is coming clearer into focus. If Mr. Williams had refused to testify, then I could understand the government believing it morally right to prove its case by solely circumstantial evidence.
But Mr. Williams is the government’s own witness, the other guy in the room when the deal got allegedly cut. If the former Star CEO had a deal with McDonnell, then all he need do is make the claim and let the jury decide which one to believe.
Except Williams says he had no deal, only his assumption McDonnell knew the truth behind the smokescreen.
Is the moral dilemma plain now? In order to convict the McDonnell’s, one has to be convinced, to a moral certainty, they are guilty of the crimes alleged.
This is America: How can jurors possibly conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty, they know something Mr. Williams, the guy in the room when the deal allegedly got cut, says he doesn’t know to a similar moral certainty?
They cannot given the evidence to date. It may yet be presented but this is unlikely.
Admittedly the evidence is damning against the former Governor. He has shown an unbelievable ethical blindness and no real contrition. It seems too many things are too coincidental to be a coincidence.
But the prosecution’s star accuser, the instigator of the alleged deal, can’t swear under oath he actually had such a deal despite being given immunity. Without a quid-pro-quo deal, there are no crimes no matter how unethical the conduct at issue.
This is why I call it a morally challenged case at this point.