Bob McDonnell’s lawyers play a dangerous, unedifying game

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell will soon receive his sentence for felony public corruption. He could face more than 10 years of prison time.

To avoid this fate — harsh, I think, but consistent with federal sentencing guidelines — McDonnell’s legal team has presented the sentencing judge with hundreds of letters arguing for leniency. As Christian Adams reports, the letters include many heartwarming stories of McDonnell’s character and good works, such as a trip to New Orleans to help rebuild after Katrina and outreach to the family of a young runner who died during a race.

In many respects, McDonnell seems to be a good man.

But there is a disturbing theme in the letters. According to Adams, they “repeatedly cite McDonnell’s support for automatic felon voting rights.”

Why is this disturbing? Because the issue of automatic felon voting rights is a contentious political question. The criminal sentencing of a public figure shouldn’t turn on the political stances the official took.

The letters go even further in attempting to inject politics into sentencing. According to Adams, some letters say that McDonnell took private positions defending President Obama when many of his Republican attorneys general colleagues voiced opposition to the president. One letter states that McDonnell “asked his [GOP AG] colleagues to reconsider their wishes that the Obama presidency fail.”

I should probably note that the sentencing judge, James Spencer, is African-American. Are McDonnell’s attorneys attempting to play the race card (automatic restoration of felon voting rights will disproportionately assist African-Americans)? Are they simply trying to offset any bias against McDonnell for being a conservative (for the most part)?

Regardless of their motive, the lawyers are playing a dangerous game (who knows how Judge Spencer will react?), and an unedifying one.

The pro-McDonnell letter writing campaign reminds me of another unedifying development, the tendency of public companies and public figures to seek “absolution” from so-called civil rights leaders for mildly “incorrect” conduct or statements. The latest manifestation is the attempt of Sony executives to have Al Sharpton absolve them for having joked about President Obama’s race in private emails.

Absolution comes with a price. From corporations, the price typically is monetary (Jesse Jackson pioneered this shakedown). From politicians, it’s political favors.

Republicans usually need not apply. They must be punished by their Party. Thus, the White House is saying in effect that Steve Scalise, who apparently attended a political event sponsored by racists more than 10 years ago, should be excluded from a leadership position in the House.

But the man who lives in the White House attended for years a church in which his “spiritual adviser” constantly spewed hatred against Whites and Jews.

Back to the McDonnell letters, Adams finds one more disturbing theme. He writes:

[T]he hundreds of letters also provide accidental context to the prosecution’s case against McDonnell as well as insight into the political traits of the former governor. The letters are mostly from political appointees of McDonnell, campaign staffers, political donors, recipients of appointments to state boards, political figures and others who received favors from McDonnell over the years. McDonnell was convicted of using public office for personal gain. . . .

When the letters, read together, reveal a repeating story of favors, appointments, access and policies eventually curing into a letter seeking probation instead of prison, it makes you wonder how genuinely oblivious the players in this system have become.

This is another sense in which McDonnell’s lawyers are playing a dangerous game.

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