Who’s in Charge Here: McDonnell’s future, and the future of gift giving

File photo|AP
File photo|AP

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Former Governor Bob McDonnell is now a free man. Last Friday, federal prosecutors dropped corruption charges against him, after June’s dramatic Supreme Court decision vacated an earlier conviction and forced a possible retrial. With the charges dropped, McDonnell and his wife are no longer in danger of spending any time in jail.

I chatted a bit with WRIC’s Juan Conde about this last week, but there’s still a bit more to be said about the implications of this decision – both for the future of Virginia politics, and the future of the former Governor.

First, Virginia politics is free to return to normal. And by “normal” I mean the form of legalized and institutionalized corruption that we call “The Virginia Way.” In case you’re unfamiliar with this particular term of art, it refers to the dignified, restrained, and polite form of politics practiced in our great Commonwealth. It’s also a load of nonsense.

For years, Virginia politics has operated under extremely lax ethics rules, with the idea that almost every kind of gift is permissible, as long as it is disclosed. Presumably the public’s knowledge of any politician’s gift register – and the integrity of individual legislators and executives [cough, cough] – would prevent any unseemly exchanges. But as we saw with Governor McDonnell, there was very little enforcement or auditing of this reporting. McDonnell never told anyone about Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams’ lavish gifts to the Governor and his family. (The only reason we found out about them was because his former chef ratted him out after being fired for supposedly stealing food from the mansion.)

For years, Virginia politics has operated under extremely lax ethics rules, with the idea that almost every kind of gift is permissible, as long as it is disclosed.

Since the McDonnell revelations, the state’s General Assembly has passed laws that supposedly tighten restrictions on gifts. You can read the regulations here, if you have a particularly masochistic streak; but the main thrust of the new rules is to limit gifts to $100 annually from any single giver. Unfortunately, this only applies to registered lobbyists and whoever hired them. As the Washington Post pointed out, these rules would not have prevented any of the gifts that Williams gave to McDonnell, since the former was not officially a lobbyist but representing himself.

That same Washington Post story argues that the vibe around the General Assembly concerning gift giving has changed, and that is probably true. During the past two or three legislative sessions, you could talk to any of the administrators and receptionists who work at the GA and they would remark how many of their bosses would refuse to accept even potted plants. But I wonder if the new ethics laws were driving that new spirit; what if, instead, it was fear of federal prosecution?

In their June decision, the Supreme Court essentially claimed that the federal prosecutors who charged McDonnell were relying on a too-loose idea of a corrupt favor; McDonnell had done nothing more than set up a meeting or two for Williams, which was too routine to count as a quid pro quo exchange. Yet in vacating the Governor’s conviction, the Court also established that there are basically no limits on the quid as long as there is no obvious quo. (Or pro. Or whatever. I’m afraid I never studied Latin.)

So now any official can get all sorts of goodies from all sorts of people, as long as the giver is not officially lobbying and as long as the receiver doesn’t do anything too obvious in return. As a result, I suspect that we’ll see a lot more gifts being accepted during this year’s legislative session, and even more as the McDonnell trial fades into memory. (There’s that Virginia Way again.)

I suspect that we’ll see a lot more gifts being accepted during this year’s legislative session, and even more as the McDonnell trial fades into memory. (There’s that Virginia Way again.)

And Bob McDonnell himself? Even after the Supreme Court decision, the former Governor had kept mostly quiet. But now since he’s been exonerated, he’s gone on a media blitz, striking back against his critics using a more defiant tone. For example, on Monday McDonnell slammed federal prosecutors to WRIC’s Parker Slaybaugh for promoting a “false narrative” of a “grand criminal conspiracy.”

Still, the statement he released last week suggested McDonnell was ready for a life beyond politics: “I have begun to consider how I might repurpose my life for further service to my fellow man outside of elected office. Polls and politics no longer seem that important. People and policies are.” But can a man who was once such a rising star the GOP really stay away from public life? F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote (although apparently didn’t believe) that “There are no second acts in American lives.” But McDonnell has remained popular with a core of Republican supporters, who viewed his years-long ordeal as a politically biased attempt to take out a popular Republican politician. (Just read the comments here.)

I just will note that there are a lot of elections coming up in Virginia. Most of the state’s top Republicans, including Ed Gillespie and Rob Wittman, are focused on the Governor’s office. But if Tim Kaine wins a promotion to Vice President, there will be Senate elections in both 2017 and 2018. If the GOP fails to mount a credible challenge to Kaine’s Democratic replacement (Congressman Bobby Scott, perhaps?) in the first of these two elections, guess which name might start circulating among the state’s Republican power brokers? We might not see Bob McDonnell’s face in politics again, but that won’t stop some from longing to see it again.

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmarr. Follow his blog here.

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