Ah, politicians and their quasi-legal payola—it’s a love story as old as time. In the good ol’ days, the transfer of cash from businessman to elected official was a relatively straightforward affair, usually involving a fat envelope and a fine Cuban cigar. But as the glory days of William “Boss” Tweed’s Tammany Hall slowly gave way to our current semi-transparent campaign finance system, politicians have been forced to find more complex and time-consuming ways to fill their pockets.
U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor’s Political Action Committee has received more than a few campaign dollars from Bank of New York Mellon. Now, his wife is chairwoman of Virginia Retirement System’s board—which pays $4.5 million in management fees to Mellon.
Needless to say, this ongoing quest for campaign cash requires a finely tuned sense of boundaries. Even in a post-Citizens United world, in which the Supreme Court basically ruled that corporations can shower unlimited donations on a candidate (as long as the candidate doesn’t ask for or receive the money directly), there are still certain lines that a greedy pol can’t cross.
The brightest and most obvious of these lines is the blatant quid pro quo, in which a lawmaker receives (or demands) payments from an entity, and then immediately turns around and rewards said entity with taxpayer-funded favors. Such was the case with Republican Del. Phil Hamilton, who steered a half-million government dollars to Old Dominion University in return for a $40,000-a-year job, and was subsequently sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in the hoosegow for bribery and extortion.
But rarely are cases as brazenly clear-cut as Hamilton’s criminal malfeasance. More often than not, corporate cash is funneled to sympathetic legislators in ways that may seem unsavory, but remain perfectly legal. A particularly glaring recent example of this, as reported by the Washington Post, involves U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, Bank of New York Mellon, the Virginia Retirement System (VRS, which manages all of the commonwealth’s public pension monies), and Cantor’s wife, Diana.
Mellon, which is paid a total of $4.5 million a year in management fees by VRS, is currently being sued by Virginia’s combative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has accused the bank of skimming $40 million in profits from a number of Virginia’s public pension funds. This turns a rather embarrassing spotlight on Cantor, who has long accepted money from Mellon.
What’s worse, Mellon’s contributions, which were once rather paltry (a grand total of $2,500 for all of 2008 and 2009), skyrocketed starting in May 2010, when the bank began giving the maximum allowed by law to both Cantor’s reelection fund and his Political Action Committee, Every Republican is Crucial. (ERIC PAC—get it?)
So, what changed? Well, in April 2010, Governor Bob McDonnell appointed Diana Cantor to the VRS board; two months later, she became its chairwoman. Now, you can’t really fault McDonnell for the appointment, as Diana Cantor was eminently qualified for the position, having previously been a VP at Goldman, Sachs & Co. But the sudden, shameless deluge of cash from Mellon’s money spigot into Cantor’s campaign coffers is the kind of thing that can make an already disillusioned voter weep in despair.
The only good thing about any of this, from our perspective, is that it finally pits the Cooch, Virginia’s most powerful law enforcement officer, against Eric the Chin, our most powerful Congress critter. It’s kind of like Al Pacino versus Robert De Niro in Heat, only with less method acting, and way more sanctimonious press conferences.
To your corners, gentlemen—and may the best man win!