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.
There is a big difference between a just verdict and a just result. Are both likely in this case? I don’t think so. Let me explain.
The prosecution’s key witness and star accuser, Jonnie Williams, originally defended Bob and Maureen McDonnell to investigators. But he decided to “come clean”, as they say, and testify against the McDonnells due to pangs from a “guilty conscience.” The Star Scientific, Inc. founder made this assertion under oath from the witness stand. By allowing the Henrico businessman to so testify, the government vouched for its accuracy, telling the court there is no plausible reason to doubt their witness’ claim.
But there isn’t anyone in the courtroom, including the prosecutors, who can in good conscience believe him. By Supreme Court decision, prosecutors were obligated to reveal they had given Williams the sweetest “get-out-of-jail-free card” immunity deal in the collective memories of all the former prosecutors, defense lawyers and professors quoted in countless media stories. Luckily for Williams, the immunity deal coincidentally appears to also protect him from being prosecuted for any potential crimes in that area, too.
Mr. Williams has been on the federal government’s scam radar since the 1980s for questionable deals where he made millions from companies that quickly went bankrupt wiping out investors. He had never previously shown remorse. But now, when the government needs his testimony, previously non-existent “pangs of conscience” become overwhelming?
Let’s be brutally honest: this whole prosecution required otherwise good people to turn a blind eye to a patently false story on the theory it served the greater good, namely convicting an alleged corrupt governor, even if necessitating allowing a predator like Williams to laugh at us all the way to the bank.
But you say, “Paul, it is a small lie in the grand scheme of things.”
It is true the governor and first lady voluntarily chose to associate with Mr. Williams, take his $177,000 in cash, gifts and loans and to do all those things the prosecution rightly says suggests the existence of a corrupt deal between the parties. Their having disgraced the Office of Governor and First Lady cannot be justified.
But their lawyers have said: “Paul, whatever they may have done, it is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. Williams got no contracts, no public funds, nothing normally associated with previous public corruption prosecutions. Why didn’t the prosecution give them a pass and prosecute Mr. Williams?”
A fair question. Especially since Williams, under oath, refused to swear to the fact he and the governor had actually made the illegal quid pro quo agreement alleged by the government. McDonnell consistently maintained Williams never asked him for anything. Unless the evidence produced by the government can prove such an “ask” beyond a reasonable doubt [defined as "to a moral certainty"], there is no crime under the public corruption statutes.
The government desperately wanted Williams to confirm his having a deal with the former governor. But instead, perhaps unwittingly – or intentionally for reasons affecting future civil cases – he backed the McDonnells' version of the conversations between them. There are only two people in the world who know what happened. Williams admits trying to con McDonnell by pretending to have no ulterior, corrupt motive. The businessman says the former governor should have seen through the ruse, but Williams concedes he is a good conman and thus might have fooled McDonnell.
I ask you: given the fact the prosecution, by law, has vouched for the truthfulness of Williams’ assertion, how can a jury ever claim to believe they know such a corrupt deal existed beyond any reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty? They can’t.
At the same, McDonnell’s claim that he treated Mr. Williams like any other “donor” seeking government assistance -- even while simultaneously trying to get sweetheart loans for the family's struggling real estate venture – simply defies common sense. The governor’s whole defense strategy, from the “crazy wife made me to it” to a curious failure to offer a more plausible alternative theory of the case, may have unnecessarily lost precious credibility with the jurors.
Bottom line: This creates several different options for a just verdict in my view, as defined by legal precedent. But what about a just result?
Jonnie Williams escaped accountability again; the chance for justice to bilked investors is as unlikely as ever. The McDonnells are ruined every which way. The case will not significantly change Virginia’s “pay to play” governmental culture to any significant degree.
A just result requires proportionality between the actual wrong and how it is righted.
Given what we know, is that possible?