In a presidential election year, the passions and possibilities of the political process are naturally front and center. Scrutiny falls on candidates at every level, whether seeking a school board spot, the White House or something in between.
Part of this scrutiny of course involves financial contributions. When do gifts and donations to politicians cross the line into political corruption?
In this post, we will address that question through the lens of a recent Supreme Court case involving the former governor of Virginia and his wife.
Charges of corruption
In 2009, term limits prevented the Democrats’ current vice-presidential candidate, Tim Kaine, from running for reelection as Virginia governor. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, handily won the race for the open chair. In a campaign taking place in the wake of the Great Recession, he successfully used the slogan “Bob’s for Jobs.”
After he took office as governor, McDonnell and his wife Maureen became enmeshed in a corruption controversy. The question was whether they had become too close to one of their supporters, a businessman who was trying to promote dietary supplements. The businessman tried to enlist the governor and his wife in those promotions.
There was public outrage in Virginia when it became known that the businessman had given the McDonnells $175,000 in gifts, loans and donations. The gifts included Rolex watches, ball gowns and other lavish presents.
Federal prosecutors brought public corruption charges against the McDonnells. The businessman who had given the money was not charged.
Both McDonnells were convicted and sentenced to prison time to be followed by supervised release. But both appealed their convictions, contending the government had not shown evidence that the businessman’s contributions had actually been linked to an official act.
Supreme Court ruling
The Supreme Court overturned Bob McDonnell’s conviction. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court said that prosecutors had tried to apply the federal bribery statute too broadly. In the wake of this decision, Maureen McDonnell is hopeful that her conviction will be overturned as well.
The Court said that merely agreeing to meet with someone who made financial contributions does not of itself constitute an official act within the meaning of the bribery statute.
Certainly the acceptance of such lavish gifts was unseemly. But the definition of an official act under federal anti-corruption law is limited. Merely arranging a meeting, hosting an event or contacting another public official don’t meet that definition, unless there is other evidence of corruption.
The Court also made the point that public officials, as part of regular constituent service, engage in all sorts of interactions with the people they represent. This includes such things as making contacts for them with other officials and participating with them in various events.
Getting good counsel
The McDonnell case is a vivid reminder of the role played by effective defense counsel. If you are facing charges of any type, state or federal, it’s important to get an experienced defense attorney on your side.