Bob McDonnell’s History Lesson

Shades of Marvin Mandel

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 15, 2014 — You’ve got to pity Bob McDonnnell, former Virginia governor and recently convicted felon. He never learned from the political-corruption history of Virginia’s neighbor to the north, Maryland.

Had McDonnell familiarized himself with the trials and legal tribulations of Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel (1969-1978), he might have avoided the ethics lapses and quid pro quo exchanges of gifts and cash that did in McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

Indeed, the similarities between the McDonnell and Mandel sagas are stunning:

  • Both men were highly popular, successful governors.
  • Both were dogged by federal prosecutors pursuing complex public corruption and bribery cases.
  • Both prosecutions stemmed in large part from marital discord and payoffs to the spouses.
  • Both cases involved governors whose bank accounts were seriously depleted even as they faced ballooning expenses
  • Both cases led to humiliating, intimate public disclosures about the two governors’ personal lives and weaknesses.
  • Both involved payments of cash, fancy clothing, trips and other luxuries in exchange for government actions that would enrich their friends.
  • Both involved incredibly weak government codes of ethical conduct.
  • Both men maintained to the end their complete innocence.
  • And both cases rested on the fuzzily defined notion that the public is entitled to “loyal and honest services” from its elected leaders.

Improper Gifts

The McDonnells were convicted Sept. 4 of receiving improper gifts and loans from a Virginia businessman peddling a miracle vitamin pill. In return, the businessman gained access to state health officials and other key individuals who could help him, thanks to the McDonnells’ direct efforts.

Mandel was found guilty in 1977 of receiving from friends cash, an expensive wardrobe, jewelry for his wife, valuable waterfront land and interest in an office building in exchange for his help in gaining lucrative thoroughbred racing days.

Mandel “loved beyond his means,” as the late Mary McGrory brilliantly put it.

Marvin Mandel with second wife, Jeanne

Marvin Mandel with second wife, Jeanne

He split from his loyal wife in a highly publicized and messy move (she refused to vacate the governor’s mansion; he lived in a hotel) so he could marry his longtime paramour.

It turned out Marvin Mandel couldn’t afford the divorce settlement or his new wife’s expensive lifestyle without help from his wealthy business friends — who even connived with a Catholic religious order that lent Mandel the divorce money.

The governor’s “thank you”: He dropped his opposition to a doubling of racing days at the Marlboro track (from 16 to 32). Marlboro had just been bought (in secret) by his friends.

Mandel followed up with strenuous arm-twisting to pass legislation giving Marlboro an additional 62 days of racing. A rinky-dink harness track would suddenly morph into a major-league thoroughbred track with 94 racing dates.

‘Serious Mistakes’

To this day, Mandel denies wrongdoing. “I said then, and I say now, that I never did anything illegal as governor of Maryland,” he wrote in a book he penned at age 90.

Mandel’s appellate lawyers cleverly defined his actions as, at worst, “a non-criminal scheme of non-disclosure.”

The trial judge, Robert Taylor, disagreed. “You made some serious mistakes,” Taylor said.

Mandel went to federal prison in Florida, was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan and had his conviction later overturned on a technicality (prosecutors had stretched the legal interpretation of federal racketeering and mail fraud laws too far).

The incriminating evidence — and there was plenty of it — was never disputed.

Cash Poor Governor

This brings us back to Bob McDonnell — politically rich, but cash poor.

He couldn’t afford his daughter’s over-the-top wedding and his wife’s outrageously expensive gowns without help from an exceedingly generous businessman who befriended them in exchange for — he hoped — state endorsement of his miracle vitamin pill.

Like the Mandel trial, which exposed backstage maneuverings by friends to extricate Maryland’s governor from a strained marriage and keep him happy, the McDonnells’ courtroom drama in Richmond revolved around their family soap opera.

Maureen McDonnell was portrayed as an out-of-control shrew, demanding more and more largesse from her financially strapped, henpecked hubby. He threw her under the bus, essentially blaming her for the whole mess.

And, of course, he denied all wrongdoing.

Ethics Loopholes

Why not? Virginia’s laughable Ethics Code makes almost any gift to a public official legal as long as you disclose it.

Maryland’s Ethics Code is even more of a Swiss cheese affair. Mandel as governor issued this code of conduct, making it applicable “to all officers and employees of the executive branch.”

It made it unethical to do exactly what Mandel later carried out.

But here’s the catch: Maryland’s Ethics Code doesn’t apply to constitutionally elected officers, i.e., the governor.

So Mandel can say with a straight face he did nothing wrong under the state’s code of conduct. Let’s call it “technical deniability.”

High Public Expectations

Still, neither he nor McDonnell could evade the long arm of federal prosecutors.

In Virginia, a jury convicted McDonnell of conspiracy, bribery and extortion. He could be sent off to prison, but if so his stay almost surely will be brief compared with Mandel’s 19 months behind bars.

Neither man understood what was expected of them as elected public officials.

They were living under an old-fashioned standard of acceptable political behavior: Take whatever you can get as long as you do it quietly and don’t directly harm the public.

That’s not how citizens view public service today, or in the 1970s. They expect their leaders will act ethically. Don’t accept valuable gifts, even from close friends. Don’t do favors for your friends. Don’t grease the wheels for your friends.

It’s not hard to understand. Politicians in high office, though, sometimes forget they’re expected to be above suspicion.

McDonnell now is paying the price for his failure to pay attention. Had he studied Mandel’s political and personal downfall, he might not have ruined his life — and his reputation.

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