Gov. Bob McDonnell and Legalized Bribery

Gov. Bob McDonnell and Legalized Bribery
His political career destroyed, his reputation ruined, former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife have opened their legal defense with a plea familiar to every parent.

Gee Dad, all the kids do it.

In time and in court, the McDonnells may offer a more detailed and nuanced explanation for their dealings with Star Scientific and its hustling chief executive, Jonnie Williams. But their legal team’s first counterpunch to the 14 criminal counts handed down Tuesday by a federal grand jury has a ring of desperation.

The McDonnells said nothing to challenge the government’s evidence, detailed in the 43-page indictment. The sweetheart loans and shopping sprees for designer shoes and dresses, the engraved silver Rolex, vacation home getaway and Ferrari, plus other goodies showered on them by Williams – valued at more than $140,000 in all – were simply gifts from a friend, they claim.

A “friend” McDonnell barely even knew until he needed a nice airplane to hop across the state during his 2009 campaign for governor, the indictment alleges.

And the help the McDonnells gave Williams and Star – the product launching event at the Governor’s Mansion, their personal, public endorsements for Star’s dietary supplements, the nudges to state university officials in support of Star’s requests for state-backed research on its products – were no more than they would provide to any Virginia business, they insisted.

He has apologized for poor judgment, but “I did nothing illegal,” McDonnell asserted on Wednesday. Williams received “the same routine courtesies and access to state government that I and every other governor before me afforded to thousands of individuals, companies, charities and other organizations whether they were donors or not,” he said.

Gee Dad, all the kids do it.

This tactic almost never works with fathers – or it never did with mine anyway – but maybe the McDonnells will have better luck with a judge and jury. Their lawyers will highlight the gap between what’s ethical and what’s legal and somewhere in that space may secure an acquittal.

That aside, what’s most striking about the defense is that it has drawn not a peep of protest from “every other governor” and all the other public officials – Democrats as well as Republicans – McDonnell now asserts share his ethical shortcomings.

Their silence is a tacit acknowledgement that our politics have become a front for legalized bribery and they’re in on the action.

Campaign contributions and personal gifts buy goodwill and access to elected officials. Bob McDonnell was elected to be governor of all 8 million-plus Virginians; he couldn’t possibly give the hundreds of thousands among them in need of the state’s help the kind of personal attention and assistance he and his wife provided to Williams.

Williams bought that help, just as big donors to other candidates, parties and political action committees seek to buy something like it whenever there’s an election.

It may have been legal, but it surely is unhealthy for what’s supposed to be a government “of, by and for the people.” And it’s getting worse.

A string of court decisions including the infamous Citizens United case has given people like Jonnie Williams opportunities to spend more money on candidates and buy more access – plus the favors that inevitably accompany it – from our public officials.

We can do better. The U.S. Supreme Court still permits states to put caps on campaign contributions and gifts to elected officials; Virginia’s failure to do so is inexcusable.

A few states and localities do more, banning corporate campaign donations and gift-giving and encouraging candidates to run on small campaign contributions – say $500 or less – from individuals, supplemented by grants of public funds. These “clean elections” or “fair elections” programs let participating candidates compete without relying on the Williamses of the world.

Bob McDonnell accomplished a lot as governor, much of it good. His indictment and defense will provide a final if unintended service if it awakens the public and our elected servants to the moral bankruptcy of today’s campaign finance and puts us on the road to cleaning it up.

Dale Eisman is a senior writer and researcher at Common Cause. He worked for 36 years as a reporter and editor at The Virginian-Pilot and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

This post first appeared in The Virginian-Pilot,