(My view: Jonnie Williams is a corrupt slimeball, I wouldn’t believe a word he says on anything. Having said that, Bob McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli (another friend of Williams and recipient of his largess) are also corrupt slimeballs who I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw. Should McDonnell be indicted? I have no idea, but one thing’s for sure: he has lost ALL moral authority to be governor, just as Ken Cuccinelli has zero moral authority to be Attorney General (or any other elected position). – promoted by lowkell)
by Paul Goldman
Has the key accuser against Bob McDonnell – Jonnie “The Rat” Williams – been telling the whole truth and nuttin’ but the truth? The Washington Post says yes, along with the rest of the Virginia news media based on their reporting over these past months. But have they been reporting, as legendary radio guy Paul Harvey might have said, “the rest of the story?” Maybe not.
On a hunch yesterday – after a long conference on the Syrian situation – I decided to think locally not globally. As you know, I have been skeptical of the “whistleblower” status given “Jonnie The Rat” Williams – by the mainstream media. So, I asked myself: If “The Rat” was indeed the upfront business guy telling the Governor he wanted stuff in return for all the gifts, did Mr. “The Rat” register as a lobbyist with the Virginia Secretary of State?
It turns out the records available online say he was a registered lobbyist for Star Scientific for the years in question. Moreover, VA law is clear: all of the gifts at issue in “giftgate” should have been reported on his lobbyist disclosure forms HAD THEY BEEN SPENT trying to influence the Governor for the statutorily defined meaning of “lobbying.”
As an aside: One reason Virginia’s ethically challenged ethics laws are so weak is because they tend not to apply to lobbying activities focused on the Executive branch, as opposed to the Legislative Branch. Thus, all the talk about cleaning up campaign disclosure laws misses a BIG PART OF THE PROBLEM IN VIRGINIA. Any real reforms will need to fill this big hole also.
BUT: Did Virginia’s admittedly weak current lobbyist registration laws as regards to trying to influence the Governor still have enough reach to ensnare Mr. Williams’ alleged efforts to try to influence the McDonnells to help Star Scientific Remember, this is the guts, the “nut” in the coconut if you will, of the federal investigation of “giftgate.” According to Jonnie “The Rat” Williams, his friendship with the Governor was either: 1) a phony veneer the two men cooked up to cover a Hobbs Act violation; or 2) a real friendship that changed at some point, with Williams making clear why he was giving gifts and the Governor therefore on notice that if he kept taking gifts, he would be violating the Hobbs Act with the First Lady as a co-conspirator.
Without a smoking gun, the federal prosecutors figure to need Jonnie “The Rat” Williams to say McDonnell understood what the Star Scientific founder had in mind when giving the gifts. As indicated above, the “mind set” part of the alleged crime is indispensable to a conviction. To the extent there exists evidence challenging Williams’ credibility, the federal case is badly weakened.
SO: We here at 200 proof, “politically incorrect” as always – we have over the years defined that term in gubernatorial politics in good measure – decided to check whether Jonnie “The Rat” Williams had indeed reported his gifts as monies spent on lobbying. It turns out: HE DID NOT.
While Virginia’s laws as regards lobbying the executive branch are pathetically weak in some regards, the law does define lobbying. “Lobbying” means:
1. “Influencing or attempting to influence executive….action through oral or written communication with an executive…official…”
2. “Soliciting others to influence an executive or legislative official”
Those are the exact words in part two of the definition. The term “executive action” is narrowly defined, and without knowing what Mr. Williams alleged asked the Governor to do, it is not clear whether he was lobbying for said action. However, if he is telling the truth, the plain meaning of #2 above clearly, on its face, covers Jonnie “The Rat” Williams’ efforts as regards to giving of gifts to the Governor’s immediate family, and the money lent to the real estate firm owned by the Governor and his sister.
To Recap: If the story Mr. Williams is allegedly telling – based on the Post’s reports – to the federales is true, then he should have reported all those gifts as part of his lobbying efforts as defined by Virginia law. Yet he DIDN’T REPORT ANY OF IT as best I can tell from looking online. Perhaps I missed it, perhaps the reports are there, but I couldn’t find them. But let’s assume I couldn’t find them because they were never in fact filed. What does that mean?
It could mean Jonnie “The Rat” Williams and Star Scientific didn’t believe such monies were required to be reported. Indeed, it is doubtful Star knew about most of it (there is evidence the company knew of some of the gifts since apparently Williams claimed them as business expenses although there is no evidence he told the McDonnell’s of his actions in that regard). HOWEVER: If that is true, it would be the same basic legal argument offered by the Governor for not reporting his gifts, although the Governor’s explanation is far more tortured.
It could mean Williams forget, but that isn’t going to fly, you don’t forget about $150 large especially when giving the way all these gifts were given. It could mean it was intentional, since if the idea was to keep the Williams/McDonnell Hobbs Act conspiracy secret, then it would make no sense for the Governor to hide the gifts while Williams was reporting spending $150 large on his various lobbyist disclosure reports. BUT OF COURSE this explanation presumes Williams is telling the truth to the federales.
Or it could mean precisely what the Governor is saying: namely, that the gifts were out of friendship – and thus would not have be recorded since they were not spent trying to influence anyone.
CONCLUSION: To me, the facts in this case, as written from jump street, are clear. McDonnell and the First Lady made a terrible mistake in judgment, accepting largess from Jonnie “The Rat” Williams in both size and concealment to bring shame really on the Office of Governor. Mr. McDonnell has belatedly begun accepting responsibility for this inexcusable error. In my view, he has more work to do in that regard, as does the First Lady. As I have written, the best result for the state of Virginia would be a Special Session called in September, forcing the General Assembly to pass tough new laws not likely to be enacted next year when the heat is off.
But that is a political decision: the US DOJ must make a legal decision, essentially whether to indict or not indict the Governor for violating the Hobbs Act, if the Washington Post’s inside sources are correct. A prosecutor, in the famous words of New York State’s top judge, can get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” Thus if the US DOJ wants to indict the Governor, it is a done deal unless he takes a plea agreement.
Thus, indicting McDonnell is really the easy part in this sad saga. The hard part is always the right part: What is justice in this situation?
This column is the only regular one in the state that has said the US DOJ should NOT indict, and has taken the usual heat for at least having the courage of our convictions. We carry no brief, as the lawyers say, for the Governor. But we indicated a certain disgust with the “rat theory of criminal law” in these kinds of circumstances. In that regard, we believe any failure on the part of Jonnie “The Rat” and Star to file correct lobbying reports supports our legal position.
Our legal system is based on the proposition that all reasonable doubts are to be decided in favor of the citizen and against the government, even if this means a 100 guilty men go free in order to prevent the conviction of an innocent individual. As of today, I submit neither the Post nor any of its leakers have provided us with the key evidence in the case: namely, why should we believe that Jonnie “The Rat,” admittedly a friend of the Governor, had reason to expect that McDonnell would condone violating the law in order to help Star Scientific?
Mr. Williams is not some naive guy dealing with state government for the first time. He got the Warner Administration to give Star a million dollars or so, which he had to give back for failing to produce the new jobs promised. Williams and Star gave big bucks to 2005 GOP GUV candidate Jerry Kilgore, making it plain that they were hoping a Governo Kilgore would be able to help the company AS PERMITTED BY THE SUPREME COURT IN MCCORMICK when it comes to discussions between a campaign donor and a candidate. Star, through Williams, likewise gave candidate McDonnell money.
The point being: For a decade, everyone has known that Williams and Star were interested in government help, as is hardly unusual. McDonnell understood that too, but the law doesn’t require a Governor to cut off all communications with campaign donors because it.
The issue then is simple to me: As a matter of criminal law, what are the ground rules when a Governor is dealing with campaign donors who are known to have sought government help in the past?
The rule, under McCormick and under Evans, seems to me to be as follows: The Governor has to make it plain to a campaign donor that he must have no expectation in mind when giving the gift. Or put another way: The basis of a Hobbs Act is the meeting of the minds of the gift giver and the gift taker. Williams has to be thinking the gift to McDonnell will induce some official action that would not otherwise have been taken, and McDonnell needs to have accepted the gift knowing this is what Williams had in mind.
So far, all the newspapers have reported is that Williams claims the Governor and he discussed how McDonnell could help his company in some undefined ways. THIS IS NOT A HOBBS ACT VIOLATION per se. Unless this alleged help would be a result of the gift giving, it might be sleazy, it might be unethical, it might be a whole lot of things: but it isn’t a Hobbs Act violation per se.
It ISN’T ENOUGH that Williams claims to have expected some undefined help from the Governor. Jonnie “The Rat” Williams will need to convince a jury that this expectation, known to the Governor, is why the Star maven gave the gifts. And if that is true, then, as I read Virginia law, Williams and Star were legally required to report gifts given to others for the purpose of influencing the Governor. Some of his gifts clearly fall into that category it seems to me.
Fair is fair: If McDonnell is going to be held accountable for his filings – as he should be – then the media needs to looking into Jonnie Williams the lobbyist: and hold him likewise accountable since he is the “Star” accuser in the most fascinating investigation of a Virginia Governor ever.