WASHINGTON — It strikes me as illogical, sexist and just plain wrong to blame former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s ruinous legal woes on his wife Maureen. She may be the one with the champagne taste, but he sipped the bubbly, too — knowing that the family budget barely had room for beer.
McDonnell’s fall from grace has been stunning and sad. Not long ago, he was on the short list of candidates to be picked as Mitt Romney’s running mate. Now he and his wife are under indictment on more than a dozen federal charges and could go to prison if convicted.
How did it happen? The most popular explanation seems to be what I’ll call the Dragon Lady Thesis — the scenario that McDonnell, previously known as a man of courtliness and rectitude, was led unwittingly down the path to perdition by his flashier, more status-conscious spouse.
Maureen McDonnell seems to fit the profile. She grew up in modest circumstances with eight siblings — an origin that amateur psychologists might say could have instilled a desire to stand out, to be noticed. She has blond hair, lots of it. She once was a Washington Redskins cheerleader. News reports have noted that she insisted her official portrait as Virginia’s first lady be touched up to make her look younger and thinner.
Indeed, according to the indictment released by federal prosecutors Tuesday, she played the starring role in some of the couple’s most egregious alleged transgressions.
The whole case is about the couple’s relationship with a Virginia businessman named Jonnie R. Williams, the former CEO of a company called Star Scientific that makes dietary supplements. Williams, apparently wanting to back a winner, allowed Robert McDonnell to use his private jet during McDonnell’s successful 2009 campaign for governor.
According to the indictment, Maureen McDonnell asked Williams for help in finding a designer dress to wear to her husband’s inauguration. Williams agreed, the indictment alleges, but the gift was vetoed by a member of Robert McDonnell’s staff who is identified only as “JE.” Maureen McDonnell then allegedly wrote an email to “JE” that said:
“I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget. I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.”
In April 2011, according to the indictment, Maureen McDonnell asked Williams to “take her shopping in New York City for the designer dress by Oscar de la Renta” — the one that “JE” had nixed for the inauguration. Prosecutors allege that on this one trip, Williams spent more than $19,000 buying shoes, clothes and accessories for Maureen McDonnell at Oscar de la Renta, Louis Vuitton and Bergdorf Goodman.
The indictment says that Maureen McDonnell was the one who asked Williams for $15,000 to pay for catering her daughter’s wedding. She is allegedly the one who first asked Williams for a $50,000 loan so that the McDonnells could keep up with the mortgage payments on several beachfront properties they had bought as investments. She was the one who noticed the Rolex that Williams was sporting, according to the indictment, and asked him to buy one just like it for the governor.
Dragon Lady Thesis proved? Not so fast.
The 43-page indictment alleges that McDonnell used his office as governor to help seek publicity and legitimacy for one of Williams’ products — a new dietary supplement for which Williams was making extravagant claims. Legal experts say it might be difficult to prove McDonnell’s guilt in a court of law. But based on the indictment, he was no bystander. His actions, legal or not, were disgraceful.
It was Robert McDonnell, according to the indictment, who had a follow-up discussion with Williams to finalize arrangements for that $50,000 loan — no paperwork, just a promise to repay with interest. It was Robert McDonnell who allegedly asked Williams for subsequent loans of $50,000 and $20,000. It was Robert McDonnell who allegedly took his sons golfing at Williams’ private club — and charged Williams’ account for merchandise in the pro shop worth hundreds of dollars.
You’re broke, your spouse comes home with armloads of designer dresses and shoes and you don’t freak out? You’re governor of Virginia, your wife asks a businessman for $50,000 and you don’t go ballistic?
Nobody’s as stupid as Robert McDonnell pretends to be.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.