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
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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.

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