Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell Will Soon Be Out Office, But Not Out Of Legal Trouble
Bob McDonnell will only be Governor of Virginia for a few more weeks, but it looks like he won’t be riding off to a peaceful post-Governorship:
Federal prosecutors told Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell last week that he and his wife would be charged in connection with a gift scandal, but senior Justice Department officials delayed the decision after the McDonnells’ attorneys made a face-to-face appeal in Washington, according to people familiar with the case.
Dana J. Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, told the McDonnells’ legal teams that he planned to ask a grand jury to return an indictment no later than this past Monday, people familiar with the conversations said.
McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, would have been charged with working together to illegally promote a struggling dietary-supplement company in exchange for gifts and loans from its chief executive, the people said.
The plan to seek the felony charges this week changed, however, after attorneys for the state’s first couple met with Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole on Dec. 12.
The attorneys argued that the governor had done nothing improper to assist businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. In particular, they focused on the credibility of a key witness, said a person familiar with the presentation. They also argued that if prosecutors proceeded with charges, they should wait until after McDonnell left office Jan. 11 to allow a smooth transition of power to Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D).
Some element of the lawyers’ arguments apparently persuaded the Justice Department to delay, according to people with knowledge of the case. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
On Friday, the day after the meeting, McDonnell’s attorneys were told that the decision would be put on hold, the people said. A final decision about whether to press charges is now not expected before Jan. 2 and could come as late as February, they said.
Jason Miyares, a spokesman for McDonnell’s legal team, and William A. Burck, an attorney for McDonnell’s wife, declined to comment. Boente and a spokesman for the Justice Department also declined to comment. McDonnell has maintained that he has done nothing wrong.
It is not unusual that a high-profile target, especially a sitting governor, would be allowed a chance to appeal a U.S. attorney’s charging decision to top officials of the Justice Department. It would be very rare, however, for the Justice Department to ultimately overturn a decision made by a U.S. attorney.
Under the law, though, any delay won’t last long:
Attorneys working for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) learned in March 2012 of allegations that McDonnell’s forms might be incomplete. As required by law, Cuccinelli designated a local prosecutor to conduct a full investigation, turning the case over to Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring in November 2012.
But Virginia law requires prosecutors to press charges within a year of being alerted to possible legal violations. That statute of limitations is expiring, which has become a factor in both the state and federal investigations.
Herring had reached an agreement with McDonnell’s attorneys to extend the statute of limitations into this month, said a person familiar with its terms. But the state probe has been on hold while federal prosecutors decided whether to proceed with more serious felony charges, and federal prosecutors felt pressured by the looming state deadline, the person said.
On Friday, all sides agreed to extend the deal on the state charges — known as a tolling agreement — into early February. That allows more time for federal authorities to make a final decision.
Herring would not comment on the federal probe other than to say that he is “awaiting a final decision from the Justice Department.”
“But,” he added, “I have to plan for other contingencies as well, such as the matter being returned back to my office.” Herring would not provide information on the tolling agreement.
Given this, I’d expect to see charges filed not too long after McDonnell leaves office on January 11th, whether it’s in Federal or State court, or both. What those charges might be, ad whether there’s actually sufficient evidence to convict McDonnell of anything, are things that obviously remain to be seen.