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Pioneering Black judge to preside over gubernatorial corruption case

25th February 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Jeremy M. Lazarus
Contributing Writer

(Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Richmond Free Press) — U.S. Judge James R. Spencer has landed one of the biggest cases in Virginia history less than two months before he is to semi-retire after more than 27 years as an active jurist. Spencer is scheduled to preside over the high-stakes trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, according to the clerk’s office at the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia in Richmond.The nationally high-profile couple is facing 14 counts of taking $165,000 in loans and gifts from a millionaire businessman in exchange for using their influence to advance his diet supplement company. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

Judge Spencer has not publicly said whether he will keep the case after he takes senior status March 25. The South Carolina native could not be reached, and there was only a repeated “no comment,” from his law clerks. However, Judge Spencer, a Harvard-educated lawyer who made history in 1986 as the first African-American federal judge in Virginia after his appointment by President Ronald Reagan, will be able to hear the cases he wants as a senior judge. He is expected to keep this attention-getting case now scheduled for trial July 28 at the U.S. courthouse in Downtown.

The case itself is history making. It is the first time any governor, even a former one, has been indicted on criminal charges. And it has triggered quite a buzz in legal circles where speculation is rife is about whether the government can make the charges stick. Veteran attorney David P. Baugh, who has been both a prosecutor and defense attorney, believes the government could face an uphill climb to convince a jury to convict.

“I’ve read the indictment,” said Baugh, who practices in Richmond, and found it “very legally slim.” He said unlike other corruption cases, he said the indictment does not include any information about McDonnell, while in office, either soliciting something from businessman Jonnie R. Williams or receiving consideration in exchange for some overt, official act. And his wife was not a public official. In Baugh’s view, the government will need to show that while in office, the former governor did something more for Williams, former CEO of the dietary supplement maker Star Scientific, than provide the kind of access and introductions that any corporate lobbyist might receive.

However, Sa’ad El-Amin, who was involved in the defenseof former Washington Mayor Marion Barry and three others who have faced charges of corruption in office, thinks the defense will have a hard time overcoming thegovernment’s case.In El-Amin’s view, the businessman got what he wanted — association with the state’s top official, which lent credibility and made it easier to attract potential investors for the money-losing company.

“Why else would he need to buy the governor?” said El-Amin. He agrees with Baugh that the government’s indictment includes little that shows McDonnell did anything official as governor to advance Star Scientific. However, El-Amin believes it “would blow a huge holein the law” if politicians could “deliver their office for sale” so long as they did it without involving the government. He thinks the government could well stress that point at trial.

This article originally published in the February 24, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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