When reports surfaced that former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell had accepted an engraved Rolex from a wealthy businessman, some questioned the judgment of the clean-cut former prosecutor whose ascendance to higher office was unquestionably possible — if not downright probable.
Like many of the other gifts and loans for which the former governor now faces federal corruption charges, it was arranged by his wife, Maureen.
According to charges laid out in a 43-page federal indictment, Mrs. McDonnell is at the center of a case that appears to show a family stretched beyond its means financially but one that reveled in perks enjoyed by society’s upper crust.
In the summer of 2011 — right around the time that the businessman, former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams Sr., was talking about getting Virginia universities involved in clinical trials for an anti-inflammatory drug — Mrs. McDonnell noticed his watch, court documents allege.
Mr. Williams was actually concerned whether the governor would actually wear “such a luxury watch given his role as a senior government official.”
Mrs. McDonnell told Mr. Williams she wanted him to buy a watch for her husband. When Mr. Williams contacted her to ask what she wanted engraved, she is said to have told him “71st Governor of Virginia.”
But the indictment not only highlights Mrs. McDonnell’s expensive tastes — recounting a list of 27 separate gifts that includes designer clothes and several pairs of high-end Louis Vuitton shoes — it details how she facilitated contact between the governor and Mr. Williams.
For example, the charges describe how, after Mr. Williams dropped more than $18,000 on an April 13, 2011, shopping trip for her in New York City, she ensured that he was seated next to the governor during a Union League Club event that evening.
Still, analysts say a wide gap exists between what looks distasteful and what could be considered illegal.
Peter H. White, a former federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Virginia, said that none of what happened involved Mr. McDonnell acting in his “official” capacity to assist Mr. Williams with promoting the health supplement Anatabloc in exchange for the gifts and loans.
“There’s no allegation of what is typically considered an official act by Governor McDonnell for a quid pro quo,” Mr. White said.
He also said it struck him as “unusual” that in a public corruption case there were so many charges leveled against the private citizen — in this case Mrs. McDonnell — and not the former elected official.
Mr. McDonnell has already attributed the charges to politically motivated overreach on the part of an overzealous Justice Department. One of the keystones of his defense is the argument that if what Virginia’s former first family did is a crime, virtually every public official could be convicted for holding photo opportunities with corporate executives and others with business before the government.
Paul Goldman, a lawyer and former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the hurdle for a grand jury to return an indictment is completely different than the bar for an actual criminal conviction.
“You need 50.1 percent to get an indictment, but 99.9 percent to get a conviction,” he said. “There’s a huge difference.”