Recently, I got a shiny new credit card. A virgin card. My current cards were carrying balances and racking up interest, which is rare for me. To avoid additional fees and interest, spending has been on a lock-down.
I longingly looked at the new credit card. “Oh, the places you can go,” I thought. “The things you can buy.” My favorite clothing stores called my name as did a gourmet food shop and even an airline.
Former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell
Then I thought of Virginia’s former First Couple, Robert and Maureen McDonnell, convicted of corruption for accepting more than $165,000 in vacations, luxury gifts and loans from Johnnie R. Williams Sr., then-CEO of a company called Star Scientific. The jury found that, in exchange for the gifts, the McDonnells helped promote Star Scientific’s dietary supplement Antabloc. (Williams, also the founder of Star Scientific, resigned in late 2013 and the company has since announced it is taking Antabloc off the market).
The point that hit home for me: The McDonnells’ credit card debt soared to nearly six figures while he was governor. An FBI agent testified that the McDonnells owed more than $90,000 at one point — more than half his annual salary of $175,000 as governor. Prosecutors argued that the former First Couple’s perceived pressure to live beyond their means and other financial woes left them vulnerable to the gifts and loans that brought them to a federal courtroom.
The McDonnells acknowledged accepting Williams’ gifts and loans, which included a Rolex for him and a nearly $20,000 shopping trip for her. But their defense team argued that Williams and Star Scientific got nothing more in return than the courtesy extended to other donors and Virginia-based companies.
During the trial, lots of embarrassing information came out, not only about the McDonnells’ marriage, but also about their spending and debt. Bob McDonnell was a budget deficit hawk who amassed more than $2.8 million in personal debt for luxury real estate deals that didn’t pay off. Maureen McDonnell at one point told Williams that bankruptcy was an option, and her chief of staff testified that she forked out for the first lady’s inaugural outfit because she said her credit cards were “maxed out.”
While some people have gloated over their plight and others have criticized the former governor and his wife, I’m mostly just sad. I interviewed McDonnell in person when he ran for attorney general in 2005. I was impressed with his sincerity and his family man credentials. McDonnell’s scheduler told me he knew he had to plan McDonnell’s schedule around daughter Rachel’s cheerleading and his twin sons’ soccer games.
I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Before the charges, McDonnell was a rising political star. Four years after being elected attorney general, McDonnell was elected governor. Two months later, he was chosen to give the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2010. His name came up as a possible 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate.
No longer. Even before the conviction, the fraud and graft allegations had already taken their toll. As Virginia politics guru Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics told NPR in 2013, “McDonnell’s political career is over. Guaranteed.”
Even if McDonnell had never taken a single gift, never been charged with corruption, that $90,000 in credit card debt signaled big trouble. At the average 15 percent interest rate, if they made only the minimum payments the McDonnells would have paid more than $12,000 in one year of interest alone.
I’m not planning to run for office — not even dogcatcher. So I don’t need to worry about being charged with political corruption. But the McDonnells’ financial woes still resonated with me because that level of debt creates pressure to make choices based more on finances than the merits or ethics of a situation. With that kind of debt, I’d be forced to make decisions — where to live, what jobs to take, how to spend my time — all with an eye on my debt.
I could see myself sitting at my computer at midnight, working to earn money to pay off purchases made on my shiny new credit card. I value my integrity but, faced with that level of debt, the temptation to blur ethical lines and rationalize my choices could catch me in a weak moment. No exotic trip, gourmet food or dazzling outfit is worth risking my personal integrity, reputation … and sleep.
I thought of my existing credit card bills. I looked at the shiny new credit card. “Oh, the places you can go,” I said to the card as I sent it on a trip, still unused, back into my wallet.