McDonnell's defence was dismissed on Wednesday by various experts on campaign finance regulations, who say the law still makes a clear distinction between the lavish private gifts of the type he admits accepting, and donations that are used to fund political campaigns, which are kept to certain financial limits under the law and are not supposed to be diverted for personal use.
“There is absolutely a difference between personal and private, even if it can sometimes be difficult to define in every instance,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“The magic words are: is it used for a 'political, legislative or governmental purpose', and a Rolex is not, a dress is not. You don't get to use campaign funds as a personal piggybank.”
Few politicians in Washington could argue they never gave preferential personal access to donors. Barack Obama, for example, was instructed by Hollywood donor Jeffrey Katzenberg to make sure he personally spent time at each table of paying guests during a recent campaign fundraiser, according to claims recounted in a New Yorker profile of Obama published this week.
“What President Obama does is not illegal, but unquestionably those who can give large sums obtain different types of access and a different type of relationship from those who don't: that's our current legal framework,” said Levinson. “The difference here is that McDonnell kicked it over on to the illegal side, but in terms of what he provided? A lot of people do that.”
But politicians are often allowed to transfer funds from campaign coffers to fund other aspects of their inauguration, such as events.
“The accusations are absolutely qualitatively different from what happens elsewhere and I'm not forgiving anything,” said Levinson. “But there is an argument that if you say, 'Buy me a $50,000 watch and I'll do x for you', it's better than what happens now, which is a tacit version of that. It's at least out in the open.”