The scandal that led to the first-ever criminal charges against a governor of Virginia started with a dress.
Soon after Republican Bob McDonnell won his 2009 gubernatorial election, his wife, Maureen, found herself in a tough spot. According to Tuesday's indictment, she needed financial help, and asked Jonnie Williams, the head of a health product company and a campaign supporter, to buy her an Oscar de la Renta dress for her husband's inauguration.
A senior McDonnell staff member shot down the idea, and was met with this in an email from Maureen in late December 2009:
I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget. I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I'm charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.
There's no excusing what the McDonnells are alleged to have done: trading the influence of the Virginia governor's office for gifts from Jonnie Williams. But Tuesday's indictment and the charges against the McDonnells show just how difficult it is to be an American politician without great wealth, and how easy it can be to slip down a path toward corruption.
The McDonnells are substantially different from a sizable number of other major political families. According to the most recent data, most members of Congress are now millionaires. Bob McDonnell's successor, Terry McAullife, has earned tens of millions of dollars in the last few years alone.
The McDonnells' financial problems were not exaggerated in that 2009 email from Maureen. Just before the housing market crashed, McDonnell and his family invested in three rental properties worth between $800,000 and more than $1 million each. According to the federal indictment, two Virginia Beach properties belonging to MoBo, a company owned by Bob McDonnell and his sister, "required capital infusions of up to $60,000 annually to meet mortgage payments and other expenses." MoBo, the indictment states, "relied on loans, including those from family and friends, to make up the difference." The company was also exploring refinancing the properties from 2009 to 2012.
The McDonnells, by all accounts, were in steep financial trouble by the time they arrived in the governor's mansion. And to meet the financial pressures of life in public office, they turned to an incredibly outlandish scheme.
It's not surprising to see U.S. politicians place so much value on appearance, even well above their own means. To be shocked is to ignore the often outrageous pressure society puts on its (especially female) political figures to look the part. Not even Janet Yellen can wear a dress twice. And remember, as big as the bill is for Maureen McDonnell's shopping spree, it doesn't even touch the $150,000 the Republican National Committee spent on a makeover for Sarah Palin in 2008.
But the McDonnell case isn't just about money for fashion. In May 2011, Maureen McDonnell met with Jonnie Williams to tell him about the McDonnells' "severe financial difficulties," according to the indictment, and asked him for a $50,000 loan in exchange for help promoting Williams' Star Scientific products. According to the indictment, Maureen also told Williams that she and her husband "did not know how they were going to pay for their daughter's upcoming wedding expenses."
That money wasn't just for dresses or Rolexes. Maureen McDonnell received the $50,000 and deposited it into her personal bank account, which before that infusion had a balance of only $4,798. Nearly $20,000 of Williams' money was used not for makeovers, but to pay off credit-card debt. "Thanks so much for all your help with my family," Bob McDonnell wrote Williams later that month.
Relative political poverty does not justify the former governor's alleged crimes, nor does it condone his wife's trade of favors for dresses or family vacations. It certainly doesn't make it right for the McDonnells to receive a hot-tub installation from Jonnie Williams' brother.
The American political system makes it easier for the wealthy to prevail. But the McDonnell case shows that the flip side is also true: In U.S. politics, not having enough money can carve out a path to ruin.