Gilbert: McDonnell case may fuel more ethics reform

By Joe Beck

A new round of ethics reform legislation may spring from the downfall of former Gov. Bob McDonnell on federal corruption charges, Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said Friday.

Gilbert, who led the push for an initial package of ethics reform approved earlier this year, said the McDonnell case is likely to prod more legislators to consider additional changes aimed at avoiding future scandals like that which led a jury to convict McDonnell and his wife Maureen of more than a dozen felonies.

“I hope perhaps we can build on the ethics reform that we passed in the last session,” Gilbert said. “This should be a good opportunity to restore public confidence in government, and we should take the opportunity to do that.”

The McDonnells’ trial riveted much of the state for five weeks as prosecutors laid out evidence that the McDonnells performed favors for a wealthy, flamboyant vitamin company executive, Jonnie Williams. The prosecution accused the McDonnells of accepting $165,000 in gifts and loans from Williams in return for their help in promoting his product.

The defense tried to fend off the charges by casting Maureen McDonnell as the source of the scandal. Defense witnesses testified that the McDonnells’ marriage had collapsed and portrayed Maureen McDonnell as a high-strung diva who developed a “crush” on Williams while obtaining gifts from him.

Gilbert said he did not want to “second guess” the jury, but described Bob McDonnell as “one of the most honorable and decent men I’ve ever met.”

“It’s a sad tragedy, not only for the McDonnells but for Virginia and hopefully some good will come from it,” Gilbert said in alluding to new attention to the state’s ethics laws.

Gilbert said he favored simplifying the current laws, which he described as “extremely complicated.”

“From what I understand from what our options are, simplification could easily lead to much stronger ethics rules,” Gilbert said.

Some lawmakers, newspaper editorial boards, government watchdog groups and academicians have criticized the state law for allowing government officials to receive a wide variety of gifts with virtually no restrictions.

The legislation Gilbert helped shepherd in the last General Assembly session created an ethics commission and imposed new limits on gift giving, but critics argued it fell far short of what is needed to prevent more scandals like those involving the McDonnells.

“We did make some strides in terms of creating an ethics commission and in trying to resolve a number of issues related to the McDonnell scandal, but I don’t think there was sufficient appetite to go beyond that,” Gilbert said, adding that one consequence of the trial is that “we will be able to find a much greater appetite for reforms.”

Gilbert said he believed the defense’s contention at the trial that the scandal was spawned by emotional and psychological “issues” gripping Maureen McDonnell. Gilbert said many other government insiders in Richmond share the same opinion of the case.

Gilbert, who is a defense attorney, also defended the widely questioned defense strategy of detailing the McDonnells’ marital discord in open court.

“Sometimes you’ve got to go with what you’ve got,” Gilbert said. “I think most of the people who know this issue in Richmond and are familiar with the players understand that none of this would have happened if not for some of the complex issues Maureen had dealt with over the years.”

“I don’t know how they were supposed to ignore that as part of their defense,” Gilbert added.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com