Op-Ed: Leniency for McDonnell would send wrong signal

This op-ed was originally posted by the Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sunday, January 4, 2015.

by Scott Peterson

McDonnellIs this the time for leniency? Former Gov. Bob McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge James Spencer on Jan. 6. But with Virginia ranked 47th out of 50 states on the State Integrity Investigation’s Corruption Risk Score Card, the answer is “no.” To be blunt, McDonnell should serve time in prison.

Why? A signal needs to be sent that we’ve turned a corner and corruption will no longer be tolerated in the commonwealth. What better place to start than with McDonnell, convicted last September of 11 counts of corruption for accepting $120,000 in sweetheart loans, lavish vacations and golf outings from a Richmond businessman?

It’s not just that he is the first Virginia governor to be convicted of a crime. Let’s face it. The “Virginia Way” is in peril. For years, the Virginia Way referred to the commonwealth’s efficient and well-managed government. Virginia was different from other states like Louisiana, Illinois or Rhode Island.

But those states all convicted and sentenced corrupt former governors Edwin Edwards, George Ryan and Edward DiPrete to prison. Because of that and other reforms, they now all rank ahead of Virginia on the Corruption Risk Score Card.

The probation office recommends a minimum of 10 years and a month in prison. McDonnell’s family lawyers Melbourne team are pleading for community service. It is hard to believe they are serious.

For anyone who cares about Virginia’s reputation for having a clean business environment, this signals a dangerous lack of accountability. This is an issue that is bigger than just one man.

Although former Gov. McDonnell tried to blame his actions on his wife, the members of the jury did not buy that line of defense. They rightly concluded that the governor’s wife didn’t make him use Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams’s plane to travel to a political event, listen to the CEO pitch his tobacco-based Anatabloc supplement product on the way back, then recommend it to Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources. He chose to do that. Those facts are getting lost in coverage of character letters and calls for leniency.

McDonnell rejected a deal offered by prosecutors to plead guilty to a single count of lying to a bank in exchange for a reduced sentence of up to three years in prison or probation. But he arrogantly refused the prosecutor’s demand that he sign a statement acknowledging his guilt.

Whose advice should the judge follow when he hands down former governor’s sentence?

How about the former governor himself? In 2011, McDonnell issued a public statement on the sentencing of former Del. Phil Hamilton, who had been convicted of corruption.

“Virginia has long been a state marked by honest, transparent and ethical governing by both parties. Today’s judgment is a reminder that no one is above the law. So too was the jury’s verdict after this trial, and so too should be this court’s sentence.”

Former Del. Hamilton is now serving a 9 1/2-year sentence in prison.

Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.