Sherwood's Notebook: Public Corruption There and Here

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell lost big time in court last week.

(And in a bit we’ll get to the public corruption investigation pending against former Mayor Vincent Gray.)

In an 89-page decision, a federal appeals court in Richmond eviscerated McDonnell’s contention that his public corruption trial was fatally flawed. 

McDonnell, who faces two years in prison for his conviction, has indicated he will appeal to the full appeals court for reconsideration. The former governor again strongly professed his innocence.

But Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff E. Schapiro wrote this past weekend that the fact that none of three judges on the appeals panel dissented “is a warning to the defense that asking the entire appeals court — that’s 15 judges — to review the case could be an exercise in futility. Ditto with the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Schapiro, who has covered Virginia state politics for 35 years, wrote that the court decision last week “is an ominous obstacle” for any further legal relief.

Although the McDonnell case is in Virginia, the Notebook suggests it is another sign and warning that federal prosecutors and courts pretty much everywhere take public corruption seriously.


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The McDonnell case essentially was this: He and his family accepted about $177,000 in gifts and favors from businessman Johnnie Williams in return for the governor’s support of Williams’ struggling medical product Anatabloc. McDonnell unsuccessfully argued that he did nothing more than any governor does in promoting state business. He also tried to pin a lot of the favor-accepting on his wife Maureen.

In just one small anecdote from the case, but an embarrassing one, Maureen had snapped a sporty picture of her husband as the wind whipped his normally perfectly coifed hair as he drove Williams’ borrowed Ferrari across the state.

When the couple arrived home, Maureen emailed the picture to Williams to show him what a fun time the couple was having. Within three hours of Maureen’s email, the court records show, the sporty governor himself directed a state health official to meet the next day at the governor’s mansion with Maureen to discuss Anatabloc in a meeting with Williams.

The entirety of the case — far more than this one joy ride — did show “compelling evidence of corrupt intent.”

Will McDonnell really pursue his appeal options, or cut his losses and reluctantly begin his two-year sentence? We’ll know in a matter of days.

It is interesting to recall that the jury in the original trial found McDonnell guilty of 11 of 14 counts of corruption. U.S. District Judge James Spencer then sentenced McDonnell to two years in prison on each of the 11 counts, or 22 years in prison. To McDonnell’s great relief, the judge said each sentence could be served “concurrently,” meaning two years total in prison instead of 22. That essentially has been the only good news in all of this for McDonnell, who once was considered a potential vice presidential candidate.

So, what does this mean if anything for former Mayor Gray?

Maybe not much more than to acknowledge again that public corruption is a major focus of prosecutors.

There are similarities in the cases, although Gray has yet to be charged with any crime.
McDonnell from the beginning has declared his innocence. When he was indicted in January 2014, he said, “I repeat again, emphatically, that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams.”

Gray has said it was “lies, lies” that he knew of the 2010 shadow campaign underwritten by financier Jeffrey Thompson. And Gray turned down potential negotiations with prosecutors to plead guilty to a felony or even potentially a misdemeanor. Thompson pleaded guilty in March 2014 to the scheme that pumped more than $650,000 in unreported cash into Gray’s winning campaign. The fact that Thompson pleaded guilty a month before the April 1 primary — sinking Gray’s re-election bid — still sticks in the throats of his supporters, some lawyers monitoring the case and even some who wanted Gray defeated.

The five-year investigation continues.

Just as prosecutors did in the McDonnell case to link the governor with businessman Williams, prosecutors here are piecing together a timeline of every action, email, phone call, meeting and government decision that links Gray, Thompson and his businesses, as well as friends, associates or employees of both men.

There has been huge criticism of former prosecutor Ronald Machen for walking away from the job this past April without taking action on Gray. If the prosecutors truly believed there is no case they can bring against Gray, it would have been a perfect time in April or June for acting U.S. Attorney Vincent Cohen to conclude the case with the guilty pleas of six others already in hand. Cohen didn’t do that.

One lawyer this week repeated a popular view that prosecutors “must” indict Gray for something because they are too far out on a limb to say, “Oops, never mind.”

So we wait.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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