The defense of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has always hinged on several key arguments. For example, the more than $165,000 in loans and gifts from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. might have been unseemly — even worthy of an apology to the state — but it wasn’t illegal.
The corruption case against Mr. McDonnell, set to be laid bare in a weekslong trial starting Monday, has also been colored by accusations of prosecutorial overreach and an expansive interpretation of anticorruption statutes from government attorneys who brought the 14-count indictment against Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, in January.
“Part of the argument the defense is making is these charges are simply the criminalization of normal political activity and that the Supreme Court has said you have to show more than access and influence,” political analyst Bob Holsworth said.
The McDonnells have pleaded not guilty to charges laid out in a 14-count indictment handed up in January, days after Mr. McDonnell left office, saying that Mr. Williams plied the former first family with gifts and loans in exchange for access to peddle his products, most notably a dietary supplement called Anatabloc.
From the start, Mr. McDonnell’s lawyers have argued that federal prosecutors were using an “extralegal” interpretation of state law in order to bring their charges.
They have also drawn on April’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision, which voided the overall federal limit on individuals’ campaign contributions, and the landmark 2010 Citizens United decision that lifted restrictions on independent political spending, to suggest the country’s high court has employed a significantly narrower definition of political corruption than was used by prosecutors.
“The governor’s attorneys will seek to conflate campaign financing with the gifts, but his will be a Rubicon to cross: How a Rolex watch could be perceived by a juror as some sort of a campaign donation — a donation, of course, not listed or disclosed as such — beggars the imagination,” said Frank Shafroth, director of George Mason University’s Center for State and Local Government Leadership.
The notion of prosecutorial overreach was also broached in a proposed court filing in April by five former Virginia attorneys general, Democrat and Republican, though the filing was ultimately rejected.
The memo, submitted for the judge’s consideration as a friend of the court brief, said the corruption charges against Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, rely on an “expansive interpretation” of federal law and are alien to any advice they would offer a governor of Virginia. They said such an interpretation creates the possibility of federal prosecution for “normal participation in the democratic process.”
“There are some people who believe it’s been an overreach on the part of the Justice Department, but they have done this in many places throughout the country — not only at the state level but reaching down to the local level,” said Mr. Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor.
Mr. McDonnell is the first Virginia governor to be formally charged with such a crime, but federal investigators have indeed cast their gaze on the commonwealth more than once in recent years. Former Delegate Phil Hamilton was sentenced to more than nine years in prison after being convicted in 2011 on bribery charges associated with his role in securing a salary for himself at Old Dominion University during the time when he was vice chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations.
More recently, federal investigators have been looking into the sudden resignation of former Democratic state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, who had been in talks with Republican lawmakers about a job on a tobacco commission and a judgeship for his daughter.
“What seems to be happening is the federal authorities are saying, ‘Despite the relative paucity of Virginia laws that address ethics and corruption, we are taking a hard look at the commonwealth, and we believe that there are practices that have arisen that violate federal statute,’ ” Mr. Holsworth said. “It’s almost as if [they’re saying], ‘Until the commonwealth cleans up its own act, until these political figures clean up their own act, we’re going to continue to be here.’ “
Prosecutors will argue that as the finances of the McDonnells became more and more strained, they turned to Mr. Williams for help, promising him the prestige and association of the governor’s mansion in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans, including $15,000 for catering at their daughter’s wedding, an engraved $6,500 Rolex watch and a New York City shopping spree.
“The government’s question to the jury would be: Do you believe in a governor to whom access and to whose decisions largesse is critical to both access and power rather than the interests of the people?” Mr. Shafroth said.