On Tuesday evening, federal prosecutors released a 14-count criminal indictment against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. The couple is accused of soliciting or accepting about $135,000 in cash and no-document loans plus tens of thousands of dollars worth of other gifts from Jonnie Williams, the chief executive of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific, in return for promoting the company's products.
On Tuesday night, McDonnell appeared before reporters to deny all wrongdoing, saying he was being "falsely and wrongly accused" by prosecutors who had "stretched the law to its breaking point." He didn't take any questions. But the fraud and graft allegations have already taken a toll: McDonnell, once a rising GOP star, spent the final six months of his term under a dark cloud, and Williams has stepped down from Star. (The Washington Post has a useful timeline of the scandal.)
The indictment makes the McDonnells out to be, at best, grifters living beyond their means, with Maureen McDonnell especially brazen in her requests for designer dresses, loans, and other favors. In return, Bob McDonnell acted as unofficial Star Scientific pitchman who allegedly schemed to get a Virginia university to conduct clinical research into the company's supplements, with an eye toward giving them scientific validation. Read the indictment below or, if you don't have time to peruse 43 pages, check out Byron York's synopsis at The Washington Examiner. York concludes:
A former governor can make a lot of money. He can cash in on the influence he still has after leaving the statehouse. But if the indictment is correct, the McDonnells, in debt and wanting to drive Ferraris and wear Rolexes and play golf at swanky courses, couldn't wait, even four years, for the payoff. [Washington Examiner]
The list of unreported gifts from Williams would be enough to make Rod Blagojevich blush — almost. It includes Oscar de la Renta dresses, Louis Vuitton shoes and accessories, golf gear and outings, the catering bill for their daughter's wedding, a silver Rolex watch with "71st Governor of Virginia" inscribed on the back, repeated use of Williams' private jet, and, kind of amusingly, 30 cases of Anatabloc, Star Scientific's flagship anti-inflammatory supplement.
The McDonnells are accused of some pretty sleazy stuff. And as is often the case, the cover-up — allegedly lying to federal investigators and otherwise obstructing the investigation — compounded the alleged fraud and graft, with a bit of insider trading thrown in. But here's the worst part of the indictment, in three parts:
The first is from an August 2011 meeting at the Governor's Mansion between Maureen McDonnell, Jonnie Williams (JW), and a senior policy adviser to the Virginia Secretary of Health. Williams supposedly tried to get the University of Virginia (UVa) and Medical College of Virginia (MCV) to conduct a clinical trial of Anatabloc, financed by a state-run tobacco fund:
In MAUREEN MCDONNELL'S presence, JW told the policy advisor that he anticipated Tobacco Commission funding for these studies and that he had discussed this with ROBERT MCDONNELL. In addition, JW discussed the idea of having Virginia government employees use Anatabloc as a control group for research studies. [Pages 14-15]
The next part is from October 2011, after Maureen McDonnell flew to Michigan with Williams and a Star Scientific contract researcher for a Star Scientific promotional event:
The next day, the research scientist sent MAUREEN MCDONNELL an email summarizing the discussions on board JW's aircraft. In the email, the research scientist wrote about the lack of data regarding the number of people who suffer from autoimmune and chronic inflammatory conditions. He stated that "it would be of value to perform a study of Virginia government employees... to determine the prevalences [sic] of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions." The research scientist further stated, "Next, to tie in [JW's] anti-inflammatory product, one could add a follow-up data assessment... to assess whether the inflammatory markers screened for at the initial visit have been decreased in employees who have taken anatabine." On or about October 24, 2011, MAUREEN MCDONNELL sent a response email to the research scientist stating "[t]hanks for your email and I printed your [sic] it out and shared it with my husband. He said he'd like to talk to some people to look into it and discern what the best approach for Virginia would be." [Pages 19-20]
On or about March 21, 2012, ROBERT MCDONNELL met with the Virginia Secretary of Administration to discuss the Virginia state employee health plan and ways to reduce healthcare costs in Virginia. During the meeting, ROBERT MCDONNELL pulled some Anatabloc out of his pocket and told the Secretary of Administration and one of her staff members that Anatabloc had beneficial health effects, that he personally took Anatabloc, and that it was working well for him. ROBERT MCDONNELL asked the Secretary of Administration and her staff member to reach out to the "Anatabloc people" and meet with them to discuss Anatabloc. [Page 26]
The McDonnells are innocent of the allegations until a court determines otherwise, but if convicted, they face decades in prison. They wouldn't be alone — The Washington Post's Carter Eskew reminds us that, along with Blagojevich in Illinois, 10 other sitting or former U.S. governors have been convicted and served time behind bars.
But while garden-variety graft and wire fraud are bad enough in public officials, scheming to use state employees as guinea pigs for an untested, tobacco-derived dietary supplement is another thing entirely.
Star Scientific has high hopes for Anatabloc — the company suggests it may help treat thyroid disease, diabetes, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's disease. So far, the only test of those claims has been by the Roskamp Institute, which the indictment describes as "a Florida-based research group that had financial ties to Star Scientific."
The key ingredient, anatabine, is an alkaloid from the tobacco plant. The FDA has already warned Star Scientific, in a December 2013 letter, about overstating the health claims of Anatabloc and misrepresenting anatabine as a dietary supplement. If Star Scientific can convince an unaffiliated research institute to do a clinical trial of its products on humans, great — maybe anatabine is the miracle drug they claim it is.
But roping in state employees to unwittingly test out the product is clearly unethical and would probably put the Commonwealth of Virginia in legal peril. The scheming didn't get anywhere, but if the allegations are true and McDonnell seriously considered the idea, it would be a mortal political sin. That he allegedly did it for money is merely venial.
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