A friend who was elected to a moderately low level position told me that a politician was a person you would never invite to dinner but for holding office. “Invite to dinner” is code around here for a person with no redeeming social value. Neither witty nor pleasant, smart nor interesting, trustworthy nor insightful. Politicians have one thing to commend them to others: A degree of power to influence outcomes.
Certainly, this wasn’t true of all politicians, as I had dined with my friend before he took office, though we never dined again after this conversation. It wasn’t that I no longer liked him enough as a person to have him over, but his dinner card was filled with donors, other politicians and donors.
The nature of what politicians do was revealed in the conviction and reversal of conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. The Supreme Court gave him a pass, or maybe only a reprieve, for being a politician.
McDonnell’s long fall from grace began almost as soon as he was elected Governor of Virginia. One of his constituents, Jonnie Williams, was the CEO of Star Scientific, a pharmaceutical company. The two met when Williams offered McDonnell the use of his private plane to help with his campaign. In a later meeting on the private plane, after the election, Williams asked McDonnell for help with a drug his company was developing.
McDonnell agreed to help Williams’ business. He introduced Williams to Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources. McDonnell’s wife offered to help Williams with his drug company. There was a lunch for Williams’ company at the Governor’s Mansion. The Governor also set up meetings for Williams with various government officials.
At the same time, Williams was providing both gifts and loans to McDonnell and his wife. He allowed them to use his vacation home and his Ferrari. He loaned the McDonnells money, gave them gifts, and bought the Governor a Rolex. Between the gifts and the loans, Williams gave the McDonnells around $175,000.
There are two sides to what McDonnell did, and what Williams did, and what McDonnell asked Williams to do. On one side, Williams wanted what a lot of people want, access to power. Who wouldn’t want to be able to pick up the phone to chat with the governor whenever you had an issue that troubled you? But Williams did it for a purpose, to further his business.
While making money may have an unseemly aspect to it, rather than someone who wanted to save the whales or stop hunger, doing business is a perfectly permissible purpose in a capitalist nation. Given the regulatory connections needed to succeed in pharma, which arose in some respects because you wanted to save the whales, who can blame Williams?
And McDonnell, a “rising star,” wanted a Rolex. Tacky, but if it wasn’t for tacky, politicians would have no style at all. He had this guy who wanted enough to be able to call him on the phone that he would give him a Rolex, let him take the Ferrari for a joyride and use his plane. Why not? McDonnell was hanging with movers and shakers and didn’t want to be the schlep. He was a governor, for crying out loud. Don’t governors need a Rolex? All the other governors would laugh at him at governor conventions if he didn’t have a Rolex. How would that make the people of Virginia feel, to know their governor was treated like a poor relation, a second-teamer? No, he owed it to his constituents to press a sycophant for a watch. It was the least he could do.
But there was no quid pro quo. He never passed a law to enable Williams, who proved to be a lousy businessman as he went out-of-pocket for about $175,000 and all he got was this lousy t-shirt, to make money. He did make some introductions, shake some hands, listen to Williams’ deepest secrets at sleepover parties and share some of his own, but that’s what governors do for anybody. Why not Williams? Why not you?
Well, not you, because you don’t have a Ferrari, and you won’t donate big sums of money for the re-election campaign. Politicians constantly need fresh infusions of money to stay in office. Have you ever wondered why anyone would give a person tens of thousands of dollars for nothing in return? They don’t have all that money to burn because they’re stupid, and they don’t burn money for kicks, unless they have so very much that, well, it’s the only way they can take their ego out for a walk.
There have always been, and will always be, opportunity for honest graft.* The blunt tool of law is at most a stumbling block, if not a map, for how to achieve access to power, and how to get a Rolex.
To trigger the corruption statute, an official must make or agree to make a decision, or pressure another official to do so — implicitly or explicitly. “If the official agreed to exert that pressure or give that advice in exchange for a thing of value, that would be illegal,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court.
In rejecting the government’s interpretation of the law, he also noted that “conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time.” Criminalizing these relationships, he said, would mean “citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.”
There was a bit of a flagrant gap in Virginia law at the time McDonnell was focused on how he could milk Williams, and it was quickly closed.
The fact is that no one statute alone can limit the many forms of public corruption. Imposing strict limits on gifts to politicians, as Virginia did last year, passing a $100 annual limit after Mr. McDonnell’s conviction, can help. Previously Virginia had no gift limit, so Mr. Williams’s gifts to the McDonnells were all legal.
Problem solved? Seriously? This just means that ways to circumvent the $100 limit come into play, whether campaign donations, the new Mercedes in the governor’s second cousin’s driveway, or the honorarium for the speech at Goldman Sachs’ lunchroom. The New York Times can afford to be naive, because it need only appeal to readers who buy the paper. Citizens concerned with corruption in government need more, to appreciate that if politicians want a Rolex on their wrist, they will find a way to get it there.
But will law ever solve the problem? The Times tries to minimize the significance of politics so as to embolden prosecution of corrupt politicians.
The McDonnell decision should be narrowly construed and need not stop prosecutors from building strong cases against politicians who are abusing their office for personal gain.
The old “need not” defense of prosecution, a time-honored argument when you want something but have overused “common sense” recently. There is no question that a quid pro quo trade-off with a politician is bribery, a crime and the sort of thing to be prosecuted. Then again, any politician stupid enough to get caught trading power for a Rolex deserves to be in prison for stupidity in the first degree.
Beyond that, all politics looks pretty much the same, emits an unpleasant odor and defies facile rules of behavior. It’s a nasty, ugly business. And the more difficult we make it to engage in politics, the more likely the people who run for office will be people we would never invite to dinner.
*It’s assumed that every reader is already familiar with Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.