Washington Merry-Go-Round

Politics as unusual or not

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 8 January 2015

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Politics as unusual or not

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell told the judge who sentenced him Tuesday to two years in prison that he is a “heartbroken and humbled man.” He asked that mercy be shown his wife, Maureen, who will be sentenced next in the corruption scandal that destroyed McDonnell’s political career along with the couple’s marriage.

Two years is not a long time to spend behind bars when federal sentencing guidelines call for a minimum of 10 years for the crimes that a jury found McDonnell guilty of committing. The disconnect is that what McDonnell did is not that different, except perhaps in degree, from what happens in politics every day when money is given and a favor is rendered.

There is so much money in the political system today as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago that politicians have to be careful about whom they hang around with, and who they accept money from. Money is fungible, and with candidates trolling for contributions to support not only political campaigns but also lifestyles suitable for the rich and famous, the McDonnells serve as a cautionary tale.

As long as politicians need money and favor-seekers are willing to give it, there will be ample opportunity for transactions that give the appearance if not the reality of wrongdoing. There will be selective prosecution, and politicians should know that in today’s hyper-partisan climate, someone is always watching.

Generally, the way the law has been interpreted is that unless there is evidence of a direct quid pro quo, a transaction that could be called a bribe, anything goes. McDonnell’s lawyers have filed an appeal that says the trial judge issued orders to the jury that were overly broad, and prompted the jury’s verdict.

The 12 Virginia jurors looked at the evidence of extravagant gifts and sweetheart loans and concluded – not unreasonably – that businessman Johnnie Williams wanted something in return. There were some meetings in the governor’s mansion, and the McDonnells had nice things to say about the nutritional supplement that Williams was marketing.

That might not have attracted the attention of federal prosecutors if Maureen McDonnell hadn’t fired a chef at the mansion who then blew the whistle on the family’s greed, and if Bob McDonnell hadn’t flaunted the gifts he accepted. Photos of him showing off his Rolex watch, and smiling broadly behind the wheel of a Ferrari, didn’t help his case.

Still, public officials across the country must be shivering in their boots when they see how easy it is to cross the line of what is a legal gift, and what constitutes something that might catch the eye of federal prosecutors. Pictures of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie high-fiving Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in his box after Sunday’s Cowboys’ win lit up the social media universe.

Is it legal and/or ethical for Christie to accept a free ride to Arlington Stadium in Texas, and sit in Jones’ box? Apparently yes under New Jersey law if Christie can plausibly argue that his friendship with Jones is longstanding.

The laws vary from state to state, and what passes muster in New Jersey, or in Virginia, could still catch the eye of a federal prosecutor. Attorney General Eric Holder has steered the Justice Department away from pursuing petty drug crimes to cracking down on public corruption.

The conviction of the McDonnells on numerous counts of corruption shocked the legal system. It was so unexpected that McDonnell passed up the opportunity to plead guilty to a single count of bank fraud, which would have let him off the hook for any prison time. Like most analysts who follow white-collar crime, McDonnell expected a wrist slap, not a jail sentence. Ironically, the jury found him innocent of the one count that could have spared him.

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© 2015 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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