The downfall began with a dress. When Bob McDonnell won the governorship of Virginia in 2009, his wife Maureen wanted something fancy to wear to the inauguration. So she made a request of a campaign donor, according to federal prosecutors: Might he buy her a designer gown for the occasion? The donor agreed. Though the arrangement was scuttled by a wary aide, Maureen McDonnell informed the donor that she would take a “rain check.”
Did she ever. Over the next two years, prosecutors say, Bob and Maureen McDonnell solicited and received more than $140,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, a wealthy executive, in exchange for advancing the interests of his company. A 14-count indictment filed Jan. 21 alleges that the former governor and his wife sought a variety of special favors from Williams: dresses by Oscar de la Renta, posh golf outings, personal loans and free plane rides. The governor received an engraved silver Rolex; his wife dropped nearly $20,000 of Williams’ cash on a Manhattan shopping spree.
McDonnell denies any wrongdoing. “We did not violate the law,” he said after the indictment was announced, and he vowed to “use every available resource and advocate I have for as long as it takes to fight these false allegations.” A lawyer for his wife says she too is innocent. Williams has not been charged and is reportedly cooperating with prosecutors.
According to the indictment, Williams flew the McDonnells on his private jet and put them up at his lakeside Virginia retreat, arranging for his Ferrari to be brought in so the governor could take it for a spin. Williams extended three separate loans totaling $120,000 to the McDonnells at their request and forked over $15,000 to cover catering costs for their daughter’s wedding. In return, prosecutors allege, the governor used his office to “legitimize, promote and obtain research studies” for Star Scientific, Williams’ struggling dietary-supplement company, a potential violation of federal criminal law requiring honest services by public officials.
A former attorney general, McDonnell won acclaim for luring out-of-state corporations to the commonwealth, presiding over a brightening economy and softening the social conservatism of his early career. Once a top vice-presidential possibility for 2012, the Republican was seen as a potential presidential contender in 2016. Whether or not they ultimately stick, the charges, brought 10 days after he left office, could amount to McDonnell’s political epitaph.
This appears in the February 03, 2014 issue of TIME.