WSJ: ‘Politics Is Not a Crime’

I’m sharing this for the headline as much as anything else.

When I saw that former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was arguing before the Supreme Court that he “had engaged in nothing more than politics as usual,” I thought, how sleazy can you get?

But then I saw the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal make the same argument, and this time I paid attention:

Bob McDonnell

Bob McDonnell

A jury convicted Mr. McDonnell in 2014 for taking more than $170,000 in gifts from a Richmond businessman who was also a family friend. The gifts included a $50,000 loan, $15,000 to finance their daughter’s wedding, fancy dresses, a Rolex watch and vacations. Let us stipulate that this is reckless and sleazy, and that the businessman hoped the Governor would take actions to promote his diet-supplement business.

The legal problem is that Mr. McDonnell never provided much of any quo for the quid. Virginia law lets politicians accept gifts, and prosecutors never charged him with violating state law. They charged him under federal law with performing “official acts” to benefit the business, but none of those acts influenced policy or changed a government decision.

Mr. McDonnell was convicted for attending a lunch at the executive mansion where the businessman’s company gave out grants to universities, for attending a reception with the businessman, for asking an aide about research pertaining to the company, and for arranging a meeting with his staff and the man.

This stretches the bribery statutes to criminalize the normal transactions of politics…

So basically, yeah, taking all those gifts was sleazy, but the man did not commit a crime. And they make a good case for that position.

For the WSJ, this fits with their overall limited-government guiding principle; they see the federal prosecutors as overstepping. It also afforded them the excuse to include this subhed: “If Bob McDonnell is guilty of corruption, then so is Hillary Clinton.”

But the larger point is also worth making. Just because we find something about politics distasteful doesn’t mean it’s a crime.

Often, it isn’t even sleazy — in this case, taking the gifts stank to high heaven, but what McDonnell did for the giver was in no way corrupt. As the Journal notes:

Public officials routinely act as boosters for local businesses. They also frequently meet donors and introduce them to others. Citizens also have the First Amendment right to petition their elected officials. If arranging a meeting for a benefactor qualifies as corruption, prosecutors will be able to target any politician in the country.

And that would be wrong.

8 thoughts on “WSJ: ‘Politics Is Not a Crime’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    At the end, the editorial summed up the situation neatly:

    Mr. McDonnell’s bad judgment was an embarrassing spectacle and he deserves political exile. His conviction deserves skepticism from the Court.

  2. Lynn Teague

    This case is now before the Supreme Court and the outcome is likely to be 4 to 4, leaving the lower court ruling in place. This is an area with many questions.. One is whether a politician could be “innocent” simply because he or she didn’t a have enough power to pull off a quid pro quo deal. The most important question is whether one-by-one quid pro quo deals are the only offenses that can be considered corrupt. Justice Roberts seems to think so. What if someone regularly siphons money to an official in the general expectation that his interests will be protected? Most people would consider this corrupt. It certainly isn’t what we hope for from our government officials.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, it isn’t. But we’re talking about the law here.

      Under Virginia law, he did nothing wrong by taking gifts. So the feds are trying to get him on federal law that forbids performing “official acts” in return for such gifts. But McDonnell didn’t DO anything out of the ordinary for his benefactor…

      1. Doug Ross

        That we know of… what kind of gifts were given by his “friend” before McDonnell became governor? That he didn’t accomplish anything doesn’t mean he didn’t try.

        1. Doug Ross

          And there is just the cachet of the friend using the governor’s name that could open all sorts of doors.

  3. Doug Ross

    And right on schedule, The Post and Courier does some great investigative work to expose dozens of SC politicians who used campaign money for $100 million is questionable spending since 2009.

    Some highlights:

    • Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Cayce, poured more than $105,000 into his own company and his father’s since 2009, accounting for nearly 80 percent of the campaign funds he spent.

    • Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg spent $4,500 in campaign cash to buy drawings and prints by her husband, an artist.

    – Former House Majority Leader Jim Merrill of Daniel Island earned more than $215,000 from fellow lawmakers who in many cases simply described the Republican’s public relations work as “campaign expense,” “consulting” or “mail.”

    None of these people are new to the game. They all took advantage of having no term limits to increase their power and wealth.

    But, yes, I’m the cynical one.


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