What the Bob McDonnell Indictment Reveals About Wealth in American Politics

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.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell stands with his wife Maureen McDonnell and daughter Jeanine McDonnell during a campaign rally on November 2, 2009 in Alexandria, Virginia.  
National Journal
Matt Berman
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Matt Berman
Jan. 22, 2014, midnight

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.

What We're Following See More »
VENEZUELA, NORTH KOREA ADDED
White House Announces Enhanced Vetting for Eight Countries
24 minutes ago
WHY WE CARE
"President Trump is replacing his controversial travel ban with a targeted list of restrictions that will enhance vetting for nationals from eight countries, senior administration officials announced Sunday. The eight countries on the modified list of countries are Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen."

The officials say these states failed to comply with the U.S. information-sharing requirements that aim to make vetting processes stronger.

Source:
TRUMP SPEECH “AN ASSAULT ON OUR MOST CHERISHED RIGHT”
Every NFL Team Protests Trump in Some Way
24 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"Every team that played on Sunday participated in some form of demonstration" of President Trump's comments about players who kneel during the National Anthem. Some "players, coaches and executives ... stood together arm-in-arm along the sidelines" while "others sat, knelt or raised a fist" and some entire teams "stayed in the locker room or tunnel for the duration of the anthem." The Broncos' Von Miller, who knelt with 31 of his teammates, said, "We felt like President Trump's speech was an assault on our most cherished right—freedom of speech. So, collectively we felt like we had to do something before this game."

Source:
TUESDAY ADDRESS AT GEORGETOWN
Sessions to Address Campus Free Speech
24 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"Trump isn't the only member of his administration fighting a culture war this week; his Attorney General Jeff Sessions will make a "free speech on campus address" on Tuesday at Georgetown University law school in D.C. It's going to get testy." Sessions will tell the students: "Whereas the American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas — it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos."

Source:
FAR-RIGHT MAKES BIG GAINS
Merkel Wins Reelection but Party Loses Seats
24 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"Angela Merkel will once again lead Germany, but her governing coalition is going to have to deal with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which rode a wave of anti-immigrant anger to claim a sizable chunk of seats in the Parliament for the first time. ... AfD, a hard-right, anti-Islam group not even represented in parliament in 2013, has become the third largest party. That might mean big changes to the character of a parliament that, thanks to the long shadow cast by Germany’s Nazi past, was largely free of hardline nationalism. Elsewhere, the environmentalist Greens and classical liberal, centrist Free Democrats (FDP) both grew their share of the vote," at the expense of socialists and Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Source:
VOTE TO GO FORWARD
Collins, Cruz Appear to Oppose Health Bill
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

Republican opposition to the GOP health care bill swelled to near-fatal numbers Sunday as Sen. Susan Collins all but closed the door on supporting the last-ditch effort to scrap the Obama health care law and Sen. Ted Cruz said that "right now" he doesn't back it. White House legislative liaison Marc Short and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the measure's sponsors, said Republicans would press ahead with a vote this week." Collins said she doesn't support the bill's cuts to Medicaid, while Cruz said it wouldn't do enough to lower premiums.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login