Sad and disappointing

Published 10:40 am Saturday, January 25, 2014

Legislators from the area were understandably reticent in their comments this week about the indictment of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on 14 charges related to the gift-giving scandal that sank McDonnell’s political future and ensnared the gubernatorial campaign of former Lt. Gov. Ken Cuccinelli.

As with all criminal charges, the federal indictments represent only the prosecution’s side of the case, and courtroom arguments will either convince a judge or jury to convict the McDonnells or find them innocent of criminal wrongdoing on the charges that they traded on their government positions and power to receive expensive gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, the former chief executive officer of Star Scientific.

But this case has never been entirely about the McDonnells’ criminal liability or lack thereof. Even as the former governor stood before Virginians in a press conference this week and maintained his innocence, he acknowledged that he had let down the citizens of the commonwealth, and he reminded them that he and his wife had returned the gifts that could be returned and repaid the loans.

Yet those who have watched the fall of Bob McDonnell during the past year or so could be forgiven for wondering if he really understands the sense of moral outrage felt by Virginians of all political persuasions over the lavish trips, the expensive gifts and the extensive loans he and his family received simply — judging from all appearances — because he was the governor of Virginia. Nor does he seem to fathom the moral predicament that was created when those gifts appeared to have been reciprocated with public support of Star Scientific products by the governor and his wife.

During the criminal prosecution, much will depend on prosecutors’ ability to define the motivation for the McDonnells’ interventions on behalf of Star Scientific. Proving a quid pro quo relationship will be a big task, and there would seem to be a good chance that Virginia’s former first couple will avoid convictions on at least the most serious counts.

Still, the whole ordeal has left Virginians understandably suspicious of their elected leaders, and that, in the words of House Majority Leader Tommy Norment, is truly “sad and disappointing.”