Feds End Years-Long Case Against Ex-Gov. McDonnell

by | September 9, 2016

By Travis Fain

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday it won't bring a new trial against Bob McDonnell, ending its pursuit of the former governor and his wife after more than three years.

A unanimous Supreme Court decision in the governor's favor apparently set too high a bar for prosecutors who won a corruption conviction against the couple in September 2014. The high court's subsequent ruling changed the definition of political bribery in this country, setting precedents that experts agreed would have made it far more difficult for a second jury to decide the McDonnells broke federal law.

Thursday afternoon, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente asked the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to remand Bob McDonnell's case back to U.S. District court so the government could "file a motion to dismiss the indictment with prejudice." There was paperwork left to process as of Thursday evening, but that's all that remains in the case of U.S. v. Robert McDonnell.

A dismissal with prejudice means will mean these charges can't be filed again, and Boente said in a short statement that his office intends to end the case against both McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, whose separate appeal had been pending.

"After carefully considering the Supreme Court's recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further," Boente said in an emailed statement. "The department thanks the trial team and its investigative partners for their outstanding work on this case."

McDonnell breathed a sigh of relief and thanked both the Supreme Court and Department of Justice in his own statement Thursday, re-iterating the innocence he has proclaimed since news broke of the federal investigation that dominated his last year in office.

"These wrongful convictions were based on a false narrative and incorrect law," the former governor said in his statement.

The case

The McDonnell's were indicted in January, 2014, following a state and federal investigation that started as an inquiry into missing kitchen supplies at the governor's mansion and expanded into a full-blown bribery case. The McDonnell family accepted more than $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, a wealthy businessman who sought the first couple's help in promoting a dietary supplement called Anatabloc.

The scandal that engulfed former Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration left a lot of his staff looking for new career paths. Despite the sadness of seeing an administration wrecked, most of its accomplishments largely forgotten, they say they've found a new happiness in the aftermath.

The scandal that engulfed former Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration left a lot of his staff looking for new career paths. Despite the sadness of seeing an administration wrecked, most of its accomplishments largely forgotten, they say they've found a new happiness in the aftermath.

Bob McDonnell was eventually sentenced to two years in federal prison, though he never had to report, staying free on a series of appeals. Maureen faced a sentence of a year and a day.

Williams' generosity was never in doubt during a five-week trial that captivated Virginia, but just what he got for his money certainly was. The governor arranged meetings with other state employees, in one case just moments after communicating with Williams about a loan. Williams was invited to events at the governor's mansion, and allowed to invite others. Maureen McDonnell traveled with him, and both McDonnells praised Anatabloc.

But Williams, who testified against the McDonnells after cutting an immunity deal with prosecutors, never got close to what he claimed to really want: State backing for Anatabloc, including drug trials at public Virginia universities.

Virginia political leaders, who added gift limits to Virginia's lax ethics laws after the governor's indictment, praised the Department of Justice's decision to drop the case Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment, R-James City, said "the interests of justice would not have been served by another trial" and that McDonnell "has earned the right to be judged by the entirety of his public service career."

Speaker of the House William Howell, R-Stafford, expressed relief for his long-time friend, and he applauded the department for "honoring the unanimous decision of the United States Supreme Court."

The Washington Post, quoting anonymous sources, reported last week that Boente's office was recommending further prosecution, but the final decision would be made higher up in the U.S. Department of Justice hierarchy. Boente's statement, which totaled three sentences Thursday, did not address the matter.

New definition

The Supreme Court's decision narrowed the definitions of illegal acts the governor was accused of taking in the case. Under those new definitions, none of the meetings McDonnell arranged, events Williams was invited to or the positive things McDonnell said about his product rose to the level prosecutors needed to prove Williams got something for his money, according to Andrew McBride, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Wiley Rein in Washington, D.C.

"The government quite properly acknowledged that it has no evidence of use of the authority of the governor's office to compel any results," McBride said in an email to the Daily Press.

Other attorneys with experience as assistant U.S. attorneys, and private careers in white collar defense, agreed.

"It will not be the last time that prosecutors abandon cases or investigations as a result of the Supreme Court's opinion," said Kelly Kramer, an attorney at the D.C. firm Mayer Brown who represented an Arizona congressman several years ago in a corruption case.

McDonnell's life has changed radically since this scandal broke in the last year of his governorship. Once thought to be a potential future presidential candidate, his political career was decimated. He has untold legal bills. His strained marriage was the centerpiece of a very public trial. He has become a grandfather four times over. He has started a consulting business with one of his sisters, who is also named Maureen.

McDonnell said Thursday that he doesn't know what the "fourth quarter" of his life holds, but said he's been considering, "how I might repurpose my life for further service to my fellow man outside of elected office."

"Forty-three months ago I was a heartbroken man," McDonnell said in his statement. "I have become grateful for this experience of suffering, having used it to examine deeply all aspects of my life, and my role in the circumstances that led to this painful time for my beloved family and commonwealth. I am thankful to God for teaching me new lessons about His grace, mercy, and providence."

(c)2016 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)