Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell waves to the crowd after delivering his final State of the Commonwealth address before a joint session of the 2014 General Assembly at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014.
The corruption trial for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell starts today in Richmond. The proceedings will be unprecedented.
Did the governor and his wife accept luxury gifts and travel accommodations as part of corrupt bargain by a Virginia businessman to buy power and influence? Or was McDonnell an innocent man caught up in a corrupt political system? That's the question that will be at the heart of the federal corruption trial today, a drama that will pull back the curtain on the governor and the political environment in the commonwealth.
"Voters in Virginia should fasten their seat belts. They are in for the ride of a lifetime in this trial," says Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. He says McDonnell's defense is likely to be an indictment of Virginia politics. "The ugliness and the unsavory aspects of money and politics in the Old Dominion will get a hearing like never before."
Prosecutors say the governor and his wife accepted the Rolex watch and the trips to Smith Mountain Lake as part of a quid pro quo, a bargain in which the businessman was trying to gain favor for his nutritional supplement company. Proving that in court to a jury won't be easy.
"The prosecutor's' job is a difficult one," says Quentin Kidd, political science professor at Christopher Newport University. "They have a really difficult task ahead of them to convince a jury to send a former governor to jail for what appears to be largely circumstantial evidence."
In a series of pre-trial motions, prosecutors got most of what they asked for in terms of evidence that will be presented to the jury and who gets to testify. But legal experts say that's not necessarily good for the prosecution because the judge may be closing potential avenues for appeal.
In its long history, Virginia has never had a governor face corruption charges. And the commonwealth has never had a governor facing jail time. Now, all of that is about to change.
"It's going to be a black eye for Virginia," Kidd says. "It's going to indicate that the clean politics that Virginia has been known for historically is probably not the way Virginia is going to be known in the future."