High Court Decision Entrenches Pay-to-Play Politics

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  • Scott Swenson, Dale Eisman
Statement by Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn on Supreme Court Decision Vacating the Conviction of Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell

The Supreme Court’s disappointingly narrow definition of “official act” lays bare a weakness in federal law that apparently permits public officials to accept gifts that that most Americans would consider bribes. It increases the public’s vulnerability to attempts by officeholders to peddle access and influence and it entrenches pay-to-play politics as a permanent part of our system. 

Bob McDonnell and/or his wife accepted and concealed loans and gifts worth more than $175,000 from a diet supplement hustler who wanted the state’s help in building his business. Their haul included a $6,000 Rolex watch for the governor, a $15,000 contribution to the cost of their daughter’s wedding, a $20,000 shopping spree for Mrs. McDonnell, and expense-paid vacations and golf outings.

As he collected all that loot, McDonnell publicly endorsed the hustler’s product, provided use of the Governor’s Mansion to help launch it, and encouraged state university researchers to vouch for its effectiveness.

The court says none of those actions violated federal law because the governor took no “official act” in return for the gifts. But McDonnell’s acceptance of gifts that were worth far more than most Virginians could afford, as he went well out of his way to promote his benefactor’s product, is surely not how Americans want democracy to operate.      

In light of today’s ruling, every state – and Virginia in particular — should take a hard look at its gift and campaign finance laws and ensure that they set strict limits on the gifts and loans candidates and public officials can legally accept. The Center for American Progress Action Fund, which reviewed campaign finance, ethics, transparency and revolving door laws last year, gave its highest grade an ‘A-minus,’ to only one state, Connecticut; 38 states scored ‘C’ or below.

States like Virginia, which lack strong gift rules and independent ethics enforcement commissions, should immediately correct that oversight; states with commissions should review their work to ensure that they’re functioning as true watchdogs. Financial disclosure requirements, which Virginia and some other states have relied on to protect against corruption, are vital but are not sufficient.