Yesterday was a sad day for Virginia and for former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, his wife Maureen and their family. A RIchmond jury found the couple guilty of public corruption for selling the influence of the governor’s office in exchange for gifts and loans. It is difficult to argue that the jury did not make the correct decision. But it is also just as clear that the former governor believed he had done nothing wrong. Maybe this is because he felt he had done no more than many politicians in Virginia do every day. It is not unusual for state legislators to receive substantial gifts from special interests impacted by bills being considered by the General Assembly. Political analysts characterize Virginia as a “pay-to-play’ state, from top to bottom. The distinction of the McDonnells’ case was that the prosecution, at least from the jurors’ perspective, was able to establish a quid pro quo.
By itself, the acceptance of the gifts by the former governor was not illegal in Virginia at the time. So McDonnell’s rationalization that the gifts from Richmond businessman Jonnie Williams were unrelated to the political courtesies extended to him may be understandable. As the former governor pointed out, Williams gained no real benefit from his gifts. McDonnell did not order anyone to give Star Scientific a contract. He did not pressure anyone to conduct the clinical trial Williams wanted. On the other hand, Dominion Power, to cite only one example, has lavished tens of thousands of dollars in gifts annually on members of the General Assembly and, not surprisingly, generally finds favor in legislation that impacts Dominion’s business operations in the state. Dominion’s influence in the state’s politics is frequently cited as a major reason renewable energy has not had more of an impact in Virginia. While the utility, like Williams, expects favorable treatment in return for its generosity, a quid pro quo would be difficult or impossible to establish. Yet the impact of Dominion’s gifts and political contributions have had a real effect on our daily lives. So, which is worse? Even with the recent reform of Virginia’s ethics laws, there is no limit on intangible gifts, such as meals, golf outings, or travel. So do not expect the influence of money on policy to change. The McDonnells may rightly be asking, why us?