Two law firms tasked with defending former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and other state employees ran up nearly $800,000 in legal bills, which will ultimately be covered by Virginia’s taxpayers. Just ten days after McDonnell left office in January, a federal grand jury indicted him and his wife Maureen on 14 felony charges related to $135,000 in gifts the McDonnells allegedly received from the CEO of a dietary supplements manufacturer.
There are very legitimate reasons why state officials, including very high ranking officials such as McDonnell, should receive state-funded legal counsel. Like all criminal defendants, McDonnell enjoys a presumption of innocence. Unlike other defendants, however, he was responsible for decisions as governor that impact each of Virginia’s more than 8 million residents, and his high position within government makes him a likely target for lawsuits (if not necessarily criminal probes) that could ultimately reveal no wrongdoing. A governor may be unable to focus adequately on their day job if they are consumed by fears that they will not be able to pay their legal bills. (It should be noted, however, that McDonnell also has outside counsel that he is paying for out of a legal defense fund.)
Normally, however, McDonnell would have received legal counsel from the Office of the Attorney General — an office that is staffed by salaried attorneys who charge the state far less for their services than the outside firms hired to handle the McDonnell matter. Former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R-VA) recused his office from working on the McDonnell defense and related matters, however. Though Cuccinelli says that this decision arose due to concerns that he may need to prosecute state officials involved in the case against McDonnell, thus creating a conflict of interest, the fact that Cuccinelli also accepted gifts from the same CEO who allegedly gave generously to McDonnell is widely perceived to have played a role in this recusal as well.
Certainly, Cuccinelli’s successor, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, seems to view the fact that he did not receive any gifts from McDonnell’s alleged benefactor as dispositive regarding whether his office can provide legal counsel to McDonnell. Shortly after he took office, Herring dismissed the two law firms hired during Cuccinelli’s tenure. A Herring spokesperson said that lawyers from his office could address any new issues that arise from this case because the new attorney general does not believe that he faces a conflict of interest.