Arlington, VA

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

On April 27, the U.S. Supreme Court held an oral argument on former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s appeal of his federal criminal corruption conviction. Press reports on the oral argument suggest that the Supreme Court might end up overturning McDonnell’s conviction.

If the Supreme Court does rule in McDonnell’s favor, the average citizen should be justifiably outraged that what McDonnell did isn’t illegal. It reminds me of these lyrics.

Well there oughta be a law against what he’s done
Stole my heart and away he run
Didn’t leave me a thing but misery
And there oughta be a law against the way he’s hurtin’ me

What did Bob McDonnell do?

Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, accepted multiple expensive gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the boss of a dietary supplement manufacturer known as Star Scientific.

These gifts included several expensive vacations, a Rolex watch, a $20,000 shopping spree, $15,000 in catering expenses for a daughter’s wedding, joy rides in Williams’ Ferrari and tens of thousands of dollars in private loans. McDonnell promoted a Star Scientific product known as Anatabloc, hosted an event at the Governor’s mansion for the product, passed out samples, and encouraged research about the product by Virginia universities. In one case, McDonnell emailed Williams asking about a $50,000 loan, and six minutes later sent another email to his staff asking for an update on Anatabloc scientific research.

Discussion

In 2014, a federal jury convicted McDonnell and his wife on multiple counts of extortion under the Hobbs Act, a federal criminal statute prohibiting political corruption, and of “honest-services” fraud. The jury concluded that there was sufficient evidence of a connection between the actions the Governor took and the gifts and the other favors Williams provided.

The oral argument before the Supreme Court suggested that several Justices were skeptical that the jury should even have been allowed to reach these conclusions. As Dalia Lithwick, a veteran Supreme Court watcher, observed:

It will be an amazing thing if — in a year when voters across the spectrum are infuriated and sickened by the influence of money in politics — the Supreme Court decides that poor Bob McDonnell should be let off the hook because he only did what every politician does every day: Take a lot of money to open doors for a rich guy. But maybe the line between money and influence is too fuzzy and ubiquitous to even be said in words anymore. 

What about Virginia law?

At the time Bob McDonnell did what he did, there is a general legal consensus that no Virginia criminal statute would have prohibited his conduct. Moreover, at that time, there were no limits on the dollar amount of gifts that could be given by a donor to members of the executive branch or their families.

Conclusion

Only the stupidest gift giver or public official is likely to prepare a written record documenting that the donor of a Rolex watch is providing it to a public official in exchange for favorable government action by the public official. That should not be the only circumstance enabling a successful criminal prosecution:

Well there oughta be a law…
And there oughta be a law against the way he’s hurtin’ me.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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Adam Ebbin and Alfonso Lopez before Arlington's first same-sex marriage on 10/6/14With former Gov. Bob McDonnell starting to serve a prison sentence on Feb. 9 after being convicted of federal corruption charges, Arlington’s state legislators are taking aim at the state laws surrounding political gifts.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) has introduced SB 1289, called the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act. If passed, the bill would establish an independent commission on ethics, which would review all government disclosure forms, conduct random audits of legislators and grant waivers for certain gifts. It would also limit “tangible” gifts to $100 and intangible gifts, like flights and meals, to $250.

“Having a commission gives real teeth to our efforts and shows we’re serious about enforcement,” Ebbin said yesterday. “I’ve been working on this for a few years, for common sense ways to increase transparency and to penalize things that are beneath the standards of our public officials.”

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of receiving more than $177,000 in impermissible gifts from a high-profile donor, and the former governor and attorney general was sentenced to two years in prison. Despite the conviction, McDonnell wasn’t charged with corruption in any state case.

“You can drive a Mack truck through Virginia’s ethics laws,” Del. Alfonso Lopez said.

ARLnow.com spoke to several Arlington state legislators yesterday, and all of them pegged ethics reform as the biggest issue the General Assembly will face in its 2015 session. McDonnell’s conviction has helped drum up efforts for reform on both sides of the aisle.

“I’m confident there will be bipartisan support for increased reform, it’s just a matter of the details, and I’m a pretty detail-oriented guy,” Ebbin said. “I’m going to work hard to make sure the most effective elements of this legislation are adopted, I’m going to do everything in my power.”

Ebbin says his bill would aim to curb “unlimited dinners” for lawmakers and “private jets to golf tournaments,” which he finds “reprehensible.” There would be opportunities for public officials to get waivers if trips are educational or fact-finding, he said.

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USS Arlington (LPD 24) Commissioning (Courtesy U.S. Navy)Former Gov. Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were both convicted on multiple counts of corruption in federal court yesterday, a day many public officials and political observers called a sad day for the Commonwealth.

The governor was convicted on 11 of 13 counts, including three counts of honest-services wire fraud and six counts of obtaining property “under color of official right,” for gifts and loans received from businessman Jonnie Williams.

Maureen McDonnell was convicted on nine of a possible 13 counts, for many of the same crimes as her husband.

The attorneys for both McDonnells said each would appeal their convictions. U.S. District Judge James Spencer set a sentencing hearing for Jan. 6, at which the estranged couple could independently face up to 20 years in prison and fines of more than $250,000.

The McDonnells and their family reportedly were crying as count after guilty count were read, with Bob McDonnell at one point burying his head in his hands while his daughters “sobbed” behind him, the Post reported.

Current Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who campaigned on ethics reform last year after the Washington Post brought the McDonnells’ improprieties to light, released a statement in the immediate aftermath of the verdict.

“I am deeply saddened by the events of the trial that ended in today’s verdict, and the impact it has had on our Commonwealth’s reputation for honesty and clean government,” McAuliffe said in the statement. “Dorothy and I will continue to pray for the McDonnell family and for everyone who was affected by this trial.”

Attorney General Mark Herring, who also campaigned on ethics reform and issued a gifts ban for his office when he was inaugurated, said he hopes the General Assembly “will move much closer” to the gift bans he and McAuliffe instituted.

“We have a long way to go to restore the public’s trust after this embarrassing and difficult period for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Herring said in a press release. “If there was somehow still any doubt, it should be crystal clear that the people of Virginia deserve real ethics reform that will turn off the spigot of gifts, tickets, and trips that opens the door to abuse and undermines public confidence in our government.”

Some local political figures took to social media to largely express their dismay. While some may have expected Democrats to hail the verdict as a victory, no local leaders, at least in the immediate aftermath, gave any hints of pleasure after the jury’s ruling.

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

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Gov. Bob McDonnell visits Barcroft Elementary School (file photo)Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his wife, former First Lady Maureen McDonnell, were indicted today on federal public corruption charges.

The McDonnells are accused of receiving numerous high-value gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. in exchange for McDonnell using his influence to benefit Williams’ Richmond-area business, Star Scientific.

The 43-page indictment lists more than $140,000 worth of luxury goods, golf equipment, clothing and dietary supplements subject to federal seizure should the McDonnells be convicted.

McDonnell’s four-year term in office ended Jan. 11.

From a Department of Justice press release:

According to the indictment, from April 2011 through March 2013, the McDonnells participated in a scheme to use the former governor’s official position to enrich themselves and their family members by soliciting and obtaining payments, loans, gifts and other things of value from Star Scientific, a Virginia-based corporation, and “JW,” then Star Scientific’s chief executive officer. The McDonnells obtained the things of value in exchange for the former governor performing official actions on an as-needed basis to legitimize, promote and obtain research studies for Star’s products, including the dietary supplement Anatabloc®.

As alleged in the indictment, the McDonnells obtained from JW more than $135,000 in direct payments as gifts and loans, thousands of dollars in golf outings, and numerous other things of value. As part of the alleged scheme, the official actions that Robert McDonnell performed included arranging meetings for JW with Virginia government officials, hosting and attending events at the Governor’s Mansion designed to encourage Virginia university researchers to initiate studies of Star’s products and to promote Star’s products to doctors for referral to their patients, contacting other Virginia government officials as part of an effort to encourage Virginia state research universities to initiate studies of Star’s products, and promoting Star’s products and facilitating its relationships with Virginia government officials.

The indictment further alleges that the McDonnells attempted to conceal the things of value received from JW and Star to hide the nature and scope of their dealings with JW from the citizens of Virginia by, for example, routing things of value through family members and corporate entities controlled by the former governor to avoid annual disclosure requirements. Moreover, the indictment alleges that on Oct. 3, 2012, Robert McDonnell sent loan paperwork to a lender that did not disclose the loans from JW, and on Feb. 1, 2013, the McDonnells signed loan paperwork submitted to another lender that did not disclose the loans. Similarly, the indictment alleges that on Feb. 15, 2013, Maureen McDonnell was questioned by law enforcement about the loans and made false and misleading statements regarding the defendants’ relationship with JW. Three days later, on Feb. 18, 2013, Robert McDonnell is alleged to have sent loan paperwork to one of the previously mentioned lenders disclosing the loans from JW. Additionally, after her interview with law enforcement, Maureen McDonnell allegedly wrote a handwritten note to JW in which she falsely attempted to make it appear that she and JW had previously discussed and agreed that she would return certain designer luxury goods rather than keep them permanently, all as part of an effort to obstruct, influence and impede the investigation.

An indictment is merely an accusation, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

If convicted, the McDonnells could each face a maximum statutory sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of the greater of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss on the conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud count, the honest-services wire fraud counts, the conspiracy to obtain property under color of official right count, and the obtaining property under color of official right counts; a maximum statutory sentence of 30 years in prison and a fine of the greater of $1,000,000 or twice the gross gain or loss on the false statement counts; and a maximum statutory sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of the greater of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss on the obstruction of an official proceeding count.

The rest of the press release, after the jump.

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Morning Notes

Lee Highway love

Metro Accident Victim Identified as GMU Student — The person struck and killed on the Metrorail Orange Line tracks between East Falls Church and Ballston early Sunday morning has been identified as 21-year-old George Mason University student Patrick Sibley. Sibley’s brother says he did not have a good sense of direction and may have become lost after leaving a bar in Clarendon and trying to make it home to Vienna. Metro is not commenting on the incident while it is under investigation. [Washington Post]

McDonnell Touts Budget Surplus — Gov. Bob McDonnell says the state ended its fiscal year on June 30 with $585 million more than projected. That’s the largest state surplus since 2005. The cumulative surplus during McDonnell’s nearly four years in office comes in at around $2 billion. [Washington Times]

County Labor Day Closures — Arlington County has posted a list of programs and services that will remain operational while the county offices are closed for Labor Day on Monday, September 2. Libraries, parks, pools, courts and schools will all be closed. [Arlington County]

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Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotVirginia Governor Bob McDonnell belatedly has promised to return gifts he received from a wealthy Virginia businessman — while arguing he did nothing illegal in accepting them.

By contrast, Governor wannabe Ken Cuccinelli insists he has no intention of returning any of the more than $18,000 in gifts he received from the same businessman. Cuccinelli’s “explanation”: the gifts he received (e.g., a catered Thanksgiving dinner, private jet trips, luxury vacation lodging) are the kinds of gifts that literally cannot be returned (unlike McDonnell’s Rolex watch). To quote Cuccinelli, “There are some bells you can’t un-ring”.

Mr. Cuccinelli, don’t insult our intelligence.

You can place a dollar value on every gift you received from businessman Jonnie Williams. You are perfectly capable of writing him a check for the total amount of all those gifts. Your refusal to do so is sending a message to the voters of Virginia about your personal ethical standards. As I have previously written, it’s a disappointing message — a message that says a lot of bad things about you.

Since it is so obvious that your refusal to return your gifts would be contrasted unfavorably with McDonnell’s agreement to return his, why have you taken this stand? Is it because you think you are tougher or smarter than our current Governor? If that’s not the explanation, what is?

Don’t expect us to accept your excuse that “there are some bells you can’t un-ring”. You are trying to sell yourself to Virginia’s voters as a savvy lawyer who knows his way around a courtroom, noting that this experience helps qualify you to be our Governor. For this reason, your striking misuse of the phrase, “there are some bells you can’t un-ring,” is an embarrassment to your candidacy.

That phrase is most appropriately used in a courtroom when information has been given to jurors that they are not supposed to have. After that happens, the judge frequently offers to instruct the jury to disregard the information, but the lawyer for the party that might be harmed if the jury relies on the information often moves for a mistrial on the grounds that “there are some bells you can’t un-ring”.

Mr. Cuccinelli, you don’t seem to be able to use your legal training very well.

Mr. Cuccinelli, get out your checkbook and un-ring that bell.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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Morning Notes

Bamboo in the North Highlands neighborhood

Gun Fact Check — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took aim at Virginia for being one of the top suppliers of guns used to commit crimes in his city. He called out the state for having weak gun laws. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s office fought back, releasing a statement saying the state has some of the toughest gun laws in the country and its rates of crimes such as homicide and robbery are lower than in New York City. The New York Daily News checked out the claim, however, and found that Virginia has 3.9 killings for every 100,000 people. That’s compared to the state of New York — not just New York City — with 3.5 murders per 100,000 people. [New York Daily News]

Rabbits at Library — The library’s regular Paws to Read program is on hiatus in August. Instead of using dogs this month, one of the librarians suggested bringing in rabbits to join kids while they read. The librarian noted that the Muslim families she knows aren’t able to participate in the Paws to Read program because Islam discourages touching dogs. Three rabbits — Mocha, Copper and Apache — already took turns cuddling up with visitors at the Columbia Pike Branch Library. [Arlington Public Library]

Rabbit Population on the Rise — Arlington is one of the D.C. metro areas experiencing a rabbit boom. The county’s chief naturalist confirmed that there’s been a spike in most of Arlington’s neighborhoods. Because they typically don’t carry diseases or bother humans, the rabbit boom isn’t causing alarm. In fact, because the animals are prey for a number of other creatures, it’s believed their numbers will naturally come under control. [Washington Post]

Bezos to Buy Washington Post — Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon.com, has agreed to buy the Washington Post for $250 million in cash. The sale is expected to be completed within 60 days. Employees at the Post were reportedly shocked by the deal. [Poynter Institute]

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Morning Notes

Flowers on the grounds of the Pentagon (Flickr pool photo by Eschweik)

West Nile Detected at Fort McNair — West Nile Virus have been detected in mosquitoes across the river from Arlington at Fort McNair. Fort McNair is part of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall; West Nile was not found in the Fort Myer portion of the base. [U.S. Army]

Free Slurpee Day at 7-Eleven — Today, 7/11/13, customers can get a free small Slurpee from 7-Eleven stores from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. This year, instead of 7.11 ounces, the free Slurpees have increased in size to 12 ounces. [USA Today]

ART Now on Google Maps — Google Maps now allows you to plan trips and get additional information on Arlington Transit (ART) bus routes. [Arlington Transit]

Favola Calls on McDonnell to Resign — Arlington state Senator Barbara Favola (D) is calling on Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) to resign in the wake of accusations that he and his family received a series on undisclosed gifts while in the governor’s mansion. [WAMU]

Median Sale Prices Dropping in Arlington — According to numbers from Rockville-based data firm RealEstate Business Intelligence, the median home sales price in Arlington was $535,000 in June, down 2.7 percent from one year prior. The drop comes while prices in Fairfax and Alexandria were up significantly. Meanwhile, Arlington’s median sales price is also down 0.1 percent year-to-date. Possible explanations for the drop, other than potential weakness in the real estate market, include a preponderance of condo sales this year or a raft of high-end sales last year. [Washington Post, RBI]

Flickr pool photo by Eschweik

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I-66 air rights development proposal in Rosslyn (photo via VDOT)The air space above I-66 is being targeted for the construction of high-density, mixed-use development.

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and County Board Chair Walter Tejada announced Wednesday that the state, county and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority are looking into leasing the air rights above I-66 near the East Falls Church and Rosslyn Metro stations in order to generate additional revenues for transportation improvements.

“By leasing airspace above certain transportation facilities owned by the Commonwealth, we can better utilize our existing infrastructure to generate additional revenues to fund future transportation improvements, while at the same time attracting new jobs and economic development,” McDonnell said in a statement. “Additionally, by co-locating these potential developments around existing Metro stations and other major transportation facilities, we can reduce congestion and create more livable communities.”

From the press release:

Air rights development projects have proven a successful revenue generator in other parts of the United States. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation, for example, generated $40 million in FY 2011 through leases, with long-term lease income projected at $868 million. Further, earlier this year MassDOT awarded a contract for an additional air rights project through a 99-year lease that will generate $18.5 million (net present value) in rental payments.

“Virginia has long been a leader in partnering with the private sector to advance innovative solutions to our transportation infrastructure needs,” said Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton. “The potential development of these air rights presents a unique opportunity to attract additional private sector investment to the Commonwealth and better utilize our existing assets to fund future transportation projects.”

Arlington County is currently undertaking a review of the Rosslyn Sector Plan. As part of that process, development over I-66 in the northern and eastern edges of the Rosslyn Metro Station area can be evaluated. While there are no existing mixed-use development rights over the I-66 right-of-way at either Rosslyn or the East Falls Church Metro Station location, the East Falls Church Area Plan currently supports mixed use development on VDOT and WMATA’s property next to I-66.

Arlington County Board Chairman J. Walter Tejada emphasized, “It is important to involve our residents, businesses and developers in this conversation about air rights. We will ensure that any potential transit-orientated development using these air rights in Arlington County is consistent with our community’s vision and is consistent with the County’s land use and transportation plans.”

The state has issued a Request for Information to gauge private sector interest and feasibility. Following the RFI, the county, various state agencies and WMATA will weigh in on assessing how the air rights would match up with the planned development for the communities. The state will then issue a Request for Proposals in the fall, according to the governor’s office.

I-66 air rights development proposal in East Falls Church (photo via VDOT)The Rosslyn project has a suggested location adjacent to the Lynn Street overpass, but staff of the state Office of Public-Private Partnerships said it would consider other areas of I-66 in Rosslyn if those were deemed feasible.

At East Falls Church, the area of I-66 between Sycamore Street and Route 29, including the Metro parking lot to the north, is the targeted area.

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Protesters join State Sen. Adam Ebbin in push to repeal hybrid vehicle tax (courtesy photo)Hybrid car owners and climate advocates joined State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) on Monday as the lawmaker announced an effort to repeal the state’s new hybrid and electric vehicle tax.

Ebbin and Del. Scott Surovell (D-Mt. Vernon) both plan to introduce bills to get rid of the tax during the 2014 legislative session.

“Hybrids already pay gas taxes and the mileage of both hybrids and non-hybrids vary significantly,” said Ebbin. “There are gasoline-only autos that get better mileage than some hybrids, and some hybrids, including SUVs, that do not get mileage as good as many gas-only powered cars. The punitive annual hybrid tax was not well thought out and hastily passed.”

The $64 tax went into effect yesterday as part of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) transportation bill. As a compromise between McDonnell and the state General Assembly, the amount was reduced from the originally proposed $100 hybrid tax. The measure is expected to raise about $5 million out of the $1.4 billion budget.

The more than 91,000 hybrid vehicles registered in Virginia make up about one percent of all vehicles in the state. Around 80 percent of the hybrids are registered in Northern Virginia.

Earlier this year, Ebbin and Surovell circulated a petition requesting the removal of the tax from the transportation bill. That petition picked up around 8,000 signatures but did not prevent the tax from being included.

The two lawmakers plan to introduce the bills to repeal the hybrid tax on the first day of the state’s new legislative session, which is January 8.

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Morning Notes

Donaldson Run meeting the Potomac (Flickr pool photo by Mark C. White)

Heavy Seas Alehouse to Open in Rosslyn — Baltimore brewer Heavy Seas plans to open a restaurant at the newly renovated 1501 Wilson Blvd in Rosslyn. So far, the existing Baltimore location is the only other Heavy Seas Alehouse besides the one planned for Rosslyn. The restaurant is expected to open by the end of this year. [Washington Business Journal]

Army Ten-Miler Registration to Begin — Registration for the Army Ten-Miler opens at midnight on Wednesday, May 15. This year, 35,000 spots will be available for the October 20 race, instead of 30,000. General admission entries sold out within nine hours last year. [Army Ten-Miler]

Local Eighth Grader Named State’s Top Female Orator — Swanson Middle School eighth grader Dorothee Mulumba won the Virginia State Oratorical Contest on May 4. In total, her scholarship winnings from the local, regional and state competitions add up to $3,000. [Sun Gazette]

McDonnell Signs Transportation Bill — On Monday, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the transportation funding bill into law. The law cuts the state’s 17.5 cents per gallon gas tax and raises the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent, in addition to adding a $64 registration fee for hybrid vehicles. [Washington Post]

Flickr pool photo by Mark C. White

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