- - Sunday, August 24, 2014

The sad final act of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s political life are playing out in a federal courtroom in Richmond.

It is quite a change for Mr. McDonnell.

Just two years ago this month, Mr. McDonnell stood on the deck of the retired battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin, which is now a museum in Norfolk, Va. Mr. McDonnell introduced then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who in turn introduced his vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan.

Mr. McDonnell himself had been on the shortlist for vice president. Political pundits of all stripes agreed that he was an almost certain cabinet officer in a Romney administration.

And if Mr. Romney did not win, he would almost certainly be a candidate in 2016 for president.

Then a small scandal involving the chief chef at the executive mansion in Virginia exploded into a full investigation of the McDonnells and then the indictment of Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.

They faced a 14-count indictment, alleging conspiracy, bribery, “Honest Services” fraud, false statements and obstruction of justice.

The case is now in trial. Mr. McDonnell is testifying in his own defense.

Many commentators this past week said Mr. McDonnell threw his wife under the bus. A writer for Politico had an even better description, saying that he didn’t just throw her under the bus. “He laid her down gently on the road, with a pillow and blanket,” the writer said.

Mr. McDonnell’s defense is that his wife was an out-of-control shrew. She desperately wanted money to keep up with the millionaire political donors they associated with. Mr. McDonnell’s defense has portrayed him as a disengaged husband who did not want to fight his out-of-control wife.

The first rule for criminal defense lawyers is when you are in front of a jury, you do everything possible to make the jury like your client. Bob McDonnell is demonizing Maureen McDonnell, and her separate defense team is just fine with that.

The crux of the government’s case is that Mrs. McDonnell received gifts and in exchange Mr. McDonnell took certain acts that benefited Star Scientific, which was run by a major McDonnell donor named Johnny Williams.

The defense is actually a good defense. It was not illegal for Mrs. McDonnell to receive gifts. If she and her husband were all but estranged, never talking, it would be impossible for them to conspire to violate the law and it would be impossible for her to leverage those gifts into action on his part.

A humiliated Mr. McDonnell testified this week about how he would not stand up to his wife and tried to avoid fights with her. Then the testimony was capped by the bombshell revelation that they are no longer living together.

The government will have a hard time convicting the former governor and his wife on those charges. However, just for good measure they threw in charges of false statements and obstructing justice, which are much easier to prove.

For Mr. McDonnell, the most likely outcome is a conviction for false statements and obstruction of justice and an acquittal on the remaining charges. He is a lawyer and those convictions will most likely mean he will be disbarred.

If he is convicted of those charges, he will face a short prison term and then he will come back on his rehabilitation tour. He will write a book and will find a place to land, somewhere in the political establishment.

In the next few days, the final tragic chapter in the public life of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell will play out.

Like Icarus, the McDonnells flew high into the political sky, only to discover their wings were made of wax.

In the next few weeks, a jury in Richmond will decide how hard their fall will be.

(Judson Phillips practiced law for 25 years as either a prosecutor or criminal defense lawyer.)

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