George Will, Bob McDonnell and “the dynamics of democracy”

This article first appeared in the Roanoke Times, 1/8/16

George F. Will has made a career out of columns heaping contempt on “the political class.” So it’s at least mildly amusing to find him consorting with the legions of current and ex-officeholders now beseeching the Supreme Court to review and overturn the corruption convictions of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Will writes approvingly this week of “friend-of-the-court” briefs submitted on McDonnell’s behalf by 31 governors, 13 former federal officials, six former Virginia attorneys general, and law professors from Harvard and the University of Virginia. The justices are expected to decide today whether to hear McDonnell’s appeal.

Will argues that prosecutors misunderstand “the dynamics of democracy” and have stretched the definition of corruption to cover courtesies that elected officials always grant to their donors and supporters. The columnist concedes that McDonnell accepted “unseemly” gifts from diet supplement hustler Jonnie Williams and provided Williams with special access to state officials, but dismisses their dealings as just part of the “transactional business” of democratic politics.

This everybody-does-it argument has been the heart of McDonnell’s defense since his indictment two years ago. It didn’t work on the jury that listened to five weeks worth of evidence against McDonnell or on judges of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, who twice refused to overturn his convictions.

And it shouldn’t work at the Supreme Court either.

In its opinion rejecting McDonnell’s appeal, the 4th Circuit needed 16 pages to summarize the evidence. It’s clear that there was far more involved in the McDonnell-Williams relationship than McDonnell “facilitating a few meetings” — Will’s phrase — for a loyal supporter. Because it’s been well over a year since the initial verdict, a refresher may be in order.

  • Williams set the tone for his dealings with McDonnell during their first meeting, just a few weeks after the 2009 election, when he ordered a $5,000 bottle of cognac for the men to split over dinner and offered to buy Mrs. McDonnell an Oscar de la Renta gown for the inaugural.
  • In the months that followed, Williams met repeatedly with both McDonnells to tout anatabloc, his company’s diet supplement, and solicit their help in getting researchers at UVa and the Medical College of Virginia to study it. He took Mrs. McDonnell on a $20,000 shopping spree in New York, and dined with the first couple at the Governor’s Mansion for another discussion of anatabloc. He made a series of secret loans to the McDonnells, totaling more than $100,000, and provided $15,000 to help with expenses for the wedding of the first couple’s’ daughter.
  • Williams also treated the governor to golf outings and flew Mrs. McDonnell to Florida for an event sponsored by Williams’ company. He flew the governor to the Homestead resort and bought new golf clubs and bags for McDonnell and one of his sons. He purchased a $6,000-plus Rolex watch for Mrs. McDonnell to give her husband and treated the first couple to expense-paid vacations, including a weekend at his resort home near the Blue Ridge and the use his Ferrari for their drive back to Richmond.
  • Amid all this gift-giving, Mrs. McDonnell and Williams met with state officials for more discussion about possible state-backed testing of anatabloc and the governor’s office staged a luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion to formally launch the product. McDonnell attended the luncheon and talked up the product, again discussing possible state-supported studies.
  • Also at the luncheon, Williams distributed $200,000 to doctors from several medical institutions, ostensibly to support medical research. When UVa. and Medical College of Virginia researchers showed little interest in studying anatabloc, Mrs. McDonnell — with her husband present — sent a message to the governor’s lawyer –“Gov wants to know why nothing has developed… after Jonnie gave $200,000.”

There’s more, but you get the point. While Williams never got the state-backed research he was after, his failure wasn’t for lack of effort by the governor. Indeed, the UVa and MCV researchers and bureaucrats in Richmond who balked at the overtures from the McDonnells are the unsung heroes of this story. But for them, time and taxpayer dollars would surely have been wasted to push a drug that Williams’ firm, under pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, ultimately pulled from the market.

If the Supreme Court concludes that the sort of “transactional business” that runs through the McDonnell case is legal and even a routine part of our government, we’re in a lot more trouble than even the most cynical among us might have guessed.

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Dale Eisman, a former Washington correspondent for The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, is senior writer/editor at Common Cause in Washington.

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