WASHINGTON - Politics is a business of back-scratching. The teller window at the political favor bank is open 24/7 for deposits and withdrawals. You raise bundles; I appoint you to an ambassadorship. You offer your private jet or vacation home; I speak at your corporate headquarters, touting your products.
So when former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell accuses federal prosecutors of pursuing a legal theory that would criminalize ordinary political interchanges and courtesies, it's worth considering whether he's got a valid point.
Then it's worth rereading the indictment of McDonnell and his rapacious wife, Maureen, and wallowing in the sordidness of a scheme that, as portrayed by prosecutors, went far beyond back-scratching as usual. Even in the context of Virginia's lax-beyond-belief gift rules, the McDonnells' conduct crossed the line from undeniably scummy to arguably criminal.
McDonnell denounced prosecutors' "misguided legal theory ... that facilitating an introduction or meeting, appearing at a reception or expressing support for a Virginia business is a serious federal crime if it involves a political donor or someone who gave a gift." If so, McDonnell continued, "then nearly every elected official, from President Obama on down, would have to be charged with providing tangible benefits to donors."
McDonnell's lawyers were even sharper, filing court papers replete with smarmy suggestions of partisan bias. "It has been a long time since the Roman Emperor Caligula imprisoned people for violating laws written in tiny lettering on a pillar too high to see," they wrote.
Spare me. Even Caligula would have understood that the McDonnells' conduct was wrong. If they needed reading glasses to understand that, it reflects their moral obtuseness, not the law's ambiguity.
Let's review. The McDonnells didn't know Jonnie Williams, the head of a dietary-supplement company named Star Scientific, before Bob McDonnell's 2009 gubernatorial campaign solicited the use of its corporate jet. A month after the election, Maureen McDonnell was already hitting up Williams for an expensive inaugural gown, a plan nixed by the governor's staff.
Undeterred, Maureen McDonnell asked Williams for a "rain check" - and she meant it. The indictment sketches a portrait of the McDonnells, swimming in credit card debt and stuck with money-losing resort properties, using Williams as their personal ATM.
Some expenses were trivial, in nature if not amount. Maureen McDonnell had Williams take her on a $19,288 shopping spree at Oscar de la Renta, Louis Vuitton and Bergdorf Goodman. Spying Williams' Rolex, she had him buy one for her husband, engraved "71st Governor of Virginia." McDonnell and his sons not only put multiple rounds of golf on Williams' country club tab, they hit up the pro shop for hundreds of dollars in clubs and clothes.
Other Williams payments went to more essential expenses, such as paying a wedding caterer ($15,000) and ensuring the McDonnells' financial survival. Williams made $120,000 in undocumented "loans" to bail out their rental properties.
In turn, the indictment alleges, the McDonnells made extensive efforts to push Williams' chief product, Anatabloc. Maureen McDonnell was the promoter in chief, traveling to Star Scientific events and hosting a lunch for the company at the governor's mansion, but her husband did his share, setting up meetings with state officials about funding Anatabloc studies and promoting the state's use of the supplement.
Often, the timing between Williams' largesse and official action was uncomfortably close. For example, at 11:56 p.m. on Feb. 16, 2012, Bob McDonnell emailed Williams about the logistics of a loan for the beach properties. Six minutes later, McDonnell was emailing an aide, "Pls see me about anatabloc issues at VCU and UVA." The aide replied, "Will do. We need to be careful with this issue."
This is not normal constituent service from the "Bob's for Jobs" governor. The McDonnells' conduct suggests they knew they had something to hide. The indictment details how Maureen McDonnell maneuvered to avoid reporting purchases of Star Scientific shares on financial disclosure forms. Likewise, Bob McDonnell and Williams, talking about using Star Scientific stock to finance the investment properties, "discussed whether such a transfer would be reportable ... and their mutual interest in making sure that it was not."
The indictment details how, once federal agents started investigating, Maureen McDonnell tried to cover her tracks. She allegedly lied to agents about how long her husband had known Williams and about whether the loans were being repaid. She asked Williams' brother for bills on home repairs done months earlier, and returned the luxury clothes with a note acting as if they were a loan all along.
There's a legitimate worry, one I share, about the criminalization of politics. The McDonnell indictment is not an example.