Believe it or not, we were not wholly unsurprised by the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling invalidating the multiple counts of corruption against former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. The main reason we were expecting the supremes to issue a “get out of jail free” card for McDonnell is simple: During his tenure as governor, the state laws regulating gift-giving to public officials were so porous that nothing that transpired during his term—no matter how unseemly—actually ran afoul of the law.
But still, the fact that the highest court in the land handed down a unanimous verdict in favor of McDonnell caught us by surprise. This is, after all, a court starkly divided, with the conservative and liberal justices rarely seeing eye-to-eye on anything. And yet, in this tawdry case, they all saw the same thing: a pitiful first couple of Virginia who solicited funds and gifts from a mercenary businessman at every available opportunity, and gave him precious little in return.
And it was this basic lack of reciprocation (the constitutionally condemned “official acts” in return for favors) that saved McDonnell’s hide. Yes, he introduced his generous benefactor Jonnie Williams to numerous state officials, and even hosted a dinner-cum-product-launch for Williams’ tobacco-based “dietary supplement” Anatabloc at the governor’s mansion, but he never actually delivered anything of value.
If this strikes you as a piss-poor standard for judging elected officials, we heartily agree. And yet, at the same time, we completely support this court ruling, as it does exactly what a Supreme Court ruling should do: sets a federal minimum standard for lawful conduct, and leaves it up to each individual state to define how to ensure that its elected officials exceed that standard.
Virginia, it must be said, has done a particularly poor job of regulating institutional corruption. Bob and Maureen McDonnell may be the most high-profile examples of the commonwealth’s special breed of political grifters, but they are far from the only (or worst) offenders.
Indeed, Virginia’s notoriously lax ethics laws have encouraged even the most ambitious and (seemingly) morally upright of politicians to stray into gray territory. Take the case of former governor, current U.S. senator and perpetual Democratic vice presidential contender Tim Kaine. As recently reported by Politico (based on information compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project), Kaine received more than $160,000 in gifts between 2001 and 2009, including an $18,000 Caribbean vacation, $5,500 worth of clothing and an all-expenses-paid trip to an NCAA Final Four game.
Is there evidence that anyone received a quid-pro-quo for these gifts? Absolutely not. And yet, at the same time, the fact that Virginia’s elected officials are routinely showered with baubles and free trips from moneyed interests with business before the legislature is distasteful and wrong.
Yes, ethics laws have been tightened since the McDonnell imbroglio made Virginia a national laughingstock, but not nearly far enough. Now that the supremes have allowed our free-riding former governor to avoid incarceration, we can only hope that the commonwealth’s collective sense of shame will help enact laws that ensure we never see his like again.
Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.