|Johnnie Williams' Smith Mountain Lake Vacation Home|
It has been a sad and sordid week in Richmond. My General Assembly Office overlooks the Federal Courthouse. I'm glad I'm not there to see this depressing spectacle in person. A few initial thoughts.
First, this trial is highlighting some of the worst parts of the political system in Virginia. The talk about a New York shopping trip, $5,000 bottles of cognac, free yard work, requesting free Land Rovers for children, Ferarris and rolexes, free golf equipment, no interest $120,000 and $50,000 loans, covered wedding receptions, and $10,000 wedding gifts has not been pretty.
Johnnie Williams unabashedly asserting that he gave money and gifts to gain "access" and legitimize his company and its product only serves to reinforce the most pessimistic assumptions that many Virginians hold about politicians and donors that government is for sale. Not every donor is looking for "access" or something in return for their contribution. Some donors, mainly individuals, contribute because of their interest in public policy issues or over-arching government philosophies. However, this trial - no matter what the outcome - will only serve to further undermine public confidence in government.
This trial only reiterates the need for actual ethics and campaign finance reform in the Virginia, and the problems created by the Citizen's United ruling and its progeny.
Second, while much of the media focus has been on the Hobbs Act charges - the quid pro quo stuff - there has been very little media focus on the loan fraud and obstruction charges which I view as quite strong. Yesterday, Williams testified about receiving a note from Mrs. McDonnell attempting to return clothing two years after it was given (to make it appear to be a loan and not a gift) and during the midst of an FBI invetigation, and attempting to reframe their relationship as personal friendship. That's hard to defend.
Additionally, the Governor and his wife left $120,000 and $50,000 of debt off a loan application while refinancing several mortgages. There were all kinds of public statements that these payments were loans and not gifts. We haven't heard any evidence explaining the omission, but it's hard to imagine how someone could have forgotten that someone lent them over $170,000 to get them through a financial crisis within a year or two of the loan being made (however, note that Johnnie Williams did the same thing and isn't being prosecuted, presumably because of his immunity agreement).
Third, we will see if this "crush defense" will work, but I am having a hard time reconciling the assertions that Mrs. McDonnell was ignored to the extent that she hated the Governor, their marriage was in shambles, and had a crush on Johnnie Williams, so she felt it necessary to get the object of her affection to buy a $7,500 watch for her husband and share all of these luxury experiences with him. Things like watches and pictures speak a thousand words. The watch and the smiling picture of the McDonnells in a Ferrari are hard to get around.
Lastly, having been on the receiving end of a prosecution as defense counsel, it is important to remember that everyone is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in this country, the cross-examination of Johnie Williams is about to begin and the defense has not put on a single witness yet.
There are two (and sometimes three or four) sides to every story. The right to trial by jury is sacred in Virginia and whether the government has met its burden of proof to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt will be for twelve Virginians to sort out after all the evidence is in.