By Rachel Alexander
In recent years, conservative politicians have found themselves prosecuted not for the types of crimes elected officials committed in the past like theft, bribery and nepotism, but instead for nebulous sounding activity, the kind where it is difficult to understand why exactly something was wrong. It has proven easy for Democrat prosecutors to convict each "ham sandwich" victim, because the laws have become so vast, vague and complex that the public – including those serving as jurors – cannot understand them.
On January 7, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a conservative Republican once considered a leading contender for President, was sentenced by a judge to two years in federal prison. A jury found him guilty of 19 counts of honest services wire fraud, obtaining property under color of official right, and extortion under color of official right in September for accepting more than $177,000 in loans and gifts from Jonnie R. Williams, the head of a dietary supplements company, who was later invited to the governor's mansion and his cabinet. McDonnell's wife Maureen was convicted of similar charges and will be sentenced later this month. McDonnell repaid more than $120,000 to Williams in 2013, before he was indicted, but prosecutors didn't care.
Federal District Court Judge James R. Spencer could have sentenced McDonnell to community service, but instead threw the book at him. Tellingly, it came out in December that McDonnell had opposed the appointment of Spencer's wife 18 years ago to the Virginia State Supreme Court during a partisan battle in the state legislature. McDonnell nominated someone else instead, and Margaret Spencer never made it onto the State Supreme Court, instead becoming a Circuit Court judge in Richmond. Judge James Spencer was appointed to the bench by Reagan, but it is reported that he and his wife are both Democrats. At a minimum, Judge James Spencer should have recused himself from the case. McDonnell plans to appeal, and it is inconceivable the appellate court would not throw out the decision in part based on that glaring and offensive conflict of interest.
Prosecutors pressured Williams, whose story has changed at least once, into testifying against McDonnell in exchange for immunity. Williams claimed that he gave the gifts because he wanted the state to back clinical trials for his product. The state never did. In fact, there hasn't been any evidence provided revealing that Williams got something in return, so there was no quid pro quo.
In contrast, Williams was given a free pass for helping the prosecution take down McDonnell. Williams allegedly bilked not just thousands, but millions of dollars from investors, which prosecutors incredibly gave him immunity for as well. Michael S. Dry, an assistant United States attorney who prosecuted the case, had the nerve to admit the disparity in treatment of the two by the prosecution. He told the court that the Jonnie Williamses "of the world are a dime a dozen. Corrupt governors are not. But when we find one," he said, the official must be brought to justice. Dry's face was described as "twisted in anger" after McDonnell was sentenced, having asked for an even lengthier sentence. Does this sound like a fair and impartial prosecutor, or someone who has become emotionally invested in "winning?"
The left-leaning Washington Post admits that many legal experts, including Democrats, believe that a higher court may overturn the conviction because the law is too vague about what is permitted activity. Even Lanny Davis, former legal counsel to President Clinton, said the case should have never been prosecuted in the first place.
Six former state attorneys general, including four Democrats, filed a brief defending McDonnell. They said the conviction relied on an "expansive interpretation" of federal law that would criminalize routine political dealings. Virginia law says the actions taken must be "official" in order to violate the law. McDonnell would have to have known that by giving Williams access to his administration that he was committing a crime. Someone who accepted gifts from a good friend in the past would effectively be barred from ever inviting that friend to any official functions – discriminating against their own friend in contrast with the general population.
One of the former state attorneys general, Anthony F. Troy, who was assigned to represent McDonnell, "found that McDonnell gave no state contracts, awards or gubernatorial appointments to Williams." Nancy Gertner, a former judge appointed by President Clinton who now teaches at Harvard, also filed a brief, stating, "The criminal law has to be clear. It has to give notice. Otherwise, every politician is vulnerable to an ambitious prosecutor."
The Virginia State Bar suspended McDonnell's law license after the conviction, a typical practice of left-leaning bar associations. Despite the fact that the actions he was convicted of had nothing to do with practicing law, and are headed for appeal, bar associations have started wielding their power over attorneys in an overreaching manner to further pile on conservatives under attack. (Editor's note: An earlier version of this essay attributed the move to the Virginia Bar Association. It was in fact a move by the Virginia State Bar.)
The unfairness of vague laws used to target conservative politicians is starkly apparent when compared to what happened to a powerful liberal Republican county supervisor in Arizona who spent at least $86,000 in campaign contributions from powerful interests on various expensive items for himself and his family. He turned around and got the prosecutors disbarred, and his fellow county supervisors awarded him a cool $3.5 million from the taxpayers for the "stress" of attempted prosecution.
At most, McDonnell is probably guilty of a marriage gone sour. Maureen McDonnell's attorney admitted that Williams had become inappropriately chummy with her, since Williams hoped to get favors in return for his gifts. If everything alleged was true, what did the former governor expect to gain by rewarding Williams with access for luring his wife? It doesn't make any sense. You may as well require Maureen McDonnell to wear a scarlet letter A on her lapel too.
Knowing how trumped up the charges were, McDonnell refused to even accept a plea bargain that would have allowed him to plead guilty to one non-corruption related count and his wife to face no charges.
McDonnell's attorneys described what happened best, comparing the prosecution to tyrannical Roman emperor Caligula, who tried to imprison people "for violating laws written in tiny lettering on a pillar too high to see." Lanny Davis similarly opined, "Given all this, we see a prosecution that lost its sense of proportion, misplaced its priorities and exhibited judgment as poor as the McDonnells', if not worse."
The McDonnells have already suffered public humiliation, the likely loss of their marriage, and probably their health and finances. Bob McDonnell has lost his bar license and probably the rest of his political career. When are the adults going to step in? The appeals court has the next shot at stopping this.
It is long overdue to start swinging the pendulum back against activist leftists within the legal system who use their power to mercilessly and wrongfully target prominent conservatives. If not, it is only going to get worse. Many conservatives stood by and did nothing as Tom DeLay, Dinesh D'Souza and Rick Perry were targeted through the legal system, believing they must have been guilty because the laws were too complicated to understand, and the complicit left-wing media was careful to spin everything against the conservatives. A recent article in the Washington Post brazenly started out, "Virginians rightly disgusted by the sleazy behavior of ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell…"
Who will the leftists in the legal system come for next? Any conservative even slightly in the public eye is at risk, and in this Internet era of intense media scrutiny, conservatives stand to lose more than merely taking a slap on the wrist. There are three behemoths in society dominated by the left that conservatives must take on: education, media and the legal system. Conservatives have started making inroads on the first two, while giving the legal system a pass for too long. Time to wake up before you're next.