The only question regarding the multiple count federal corruption indictment of Virginia’s most recent ex-Governor Bob McDonnell (R) and his wife is whether or not the relevant laws are so porous that they can’t be convicted on the evidence. Did they use McDonnell’s high office for personal enrichment? Yes. Did they go to great lengths to disguise the fact? Yes. Did the Governor betray the public trust? Yes. Were the gifts, loans and cash, totaling at least $165,000, received from a dietary supplements company CEO essentially bribes? Of course they were. This is another excellent example of why the admonition that the accused are innocent until proven guilty is often technical rather than true. Based on irrefutable facts, the Virginia’s former First Couple is guilty as hell—of dishonesty, greed, corruption, obstruction of justice, bribery, betrayal of trust, the appearance of impropriety and outrageously unethical conduct. They just may not have broken any of the laws regulating those actions.
The legal case will ultimately rest on whether there was a specific, provable quid pro quo, which is to say, were the gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams Sr., former CEO of Star Scientific, expressly made in exchange for the governor’s assistance in helping his company in the state? Williams, who has made a deal, will testify that this was his understanding; why else would he allow himself to be used as a piggy bank by McDonnell and his wife? But in politics, as we all know, the myth is otherwise. Big companies give lawmakers big campaign contributions out of the goodness of their hearts and patriotic fervor, and it’s just a coincidence that those same lawmakers subsequently support laws that make those same companies millions, or block laws that would get in their way. It’s a coincidence! The Feds are going to have to show that what McDonnell did was significantly more sleazy than what virtually the entire population of Congress does by reflex, and also a clear violation of law.
Of course, I think what the McDonnells did was significantly more sleazy, but it all flowed from the first of several ethical rationalizations that led the one-time rising GOP star to this sorry state: “Everybody does it,” #1 on the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations list. This rationalization is especially insidious in Virginia, where the ethics regulations of elected officials are notoriously inadequate. For example, unlike most states, gifts from potential supplicants to a governor’s family members don’t have to be disclosed, as if, as in McDonnell’s case, a gift to his daughter to pay for her wedding reception isn’t really a gift to the Governor himself. The reason this rationalization is the most dangerous of all is that it is addictive, and can shut down one’s ethics alarms entirely. If everybody did it and profited, why shouldn’t I? If everybody did it and nobody complained. how wrong can it be? If everybody did it, how wrong can it be? The ethics alarms fail-safe while using this rationalization should be, once the “but it’s wrong anyway” Rubicon has been passed, should be “everybody may do it, but I’m not everybody, and everybody doesn’t do it this egregiously.” Unfortunately, that device doesn’t seem to kick in very often. More likely to kick in is #39. The Pioneer’s Lament, or “Why should I be the first?”
Ethics alarms are especially likely to malfunction when multiple powerful rationalizations are involved. The McDonnells were swimming in them, such as
- “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical,” or Marion Barry’s Misdirection (#4), as well as the closely related Compliance Dodge (#5). McDonnell, responding to Tuesday’s indictment, essentially placed all his marbles here, as he has all along. He’s a lawyer, and lawyers are famously vulnerable to this rationalization, though they should know that what is wrong is wrong whether there is a law against it or not. I suspect that McDonnell knew, and knows, that what he did was unethical and tantamount to bribery. But when other rationalizations are persuading you that what you know is wrong isn’t so wrong in your particular case, “It’s legal!” acts as a perfect catalyst for other rationalizations to do their worst. Rationalizations like…
- “I deserve this!”, a variation on the King’s Pass (#11) Especially common to the hero, the leader, the founder, the admired and the justly acclaimed is the variation on the Kings Pass that causes individuals who know better to convince themselves that their years of public service, virtue and sacrifice for the good of others entitle them to juuust a little unethical indulgence that would be impermissible if engaged in by a lesser accomplished individual. When caught and threatened with consequences, the practitioner of this rationalization will be indignant and wounded, saying, “With everything I’ve done, and all the good I’ve accomplished for others, you would hold this against me?” The correct answer to this is “We are very grateful for your past service, but yes.” Of course, the fear that some ungrateful wretched won’t understand that it’s only fair for a public servant who does wonderful things for his state to accept a few luxuries for himself and his family leads to..
- “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” #10, or what I refer to as “The Unethical Tree in the Forest.” The indictment shows that while he may have felt everything he did was legal, Governor McDonnell also was afraid that it would be misunderstood. Hey, the best way to avoid the “appearance of impropriety” is to make sure the impropriety never appears, right? Thus McDonnell engaged in various maneuvers to avoid having to report the gifts and loans from Williams. The habitually unethical as well as the rarely unethical who don’t want to admit they have strayed are vulnerable to this classic, which posits that as long as the lie, swindle, cheat, or crime is never discovered, it hardly happened at all…in fact, one might as well say it didn’t happen, so you can’t really say anything really was wrong…right? Wrong. First of all, a remarkable percentage of time, the wrongful act is discovered, like it was in this case. Even if it is not, however, the unethical nature of the act is intrinsic, and exists independently of how many people know about it. Just as a tree that falls in the forest with nobody around both makes noise and causes damage, so undetected, well-disguised or covered-up wrongs are exactly as wrong as those that end up on the front pages. They also cause the same amount of harm much of the time. A cancer you don’t know about can still kill you. #10 is one of the dumber rationalizations, but it greases the wheels for…
- #40. The Desperation Dodge or “I’ll do anything!” McDonnell, it appears, had made some bad investments and the bills were coming due. To make things worse, it appears that his wife Maureen was addicted to living beyond her means, and had mastered the art of appealing to the logic of “The King’s Pass”: “Hey, you’re Governor of the freaking state! We shouldn’t be living like the common shmucks out there!” And if you will permit me a borderline cheap shot, the imperial life-style of our most prominent elected leader has set a terrible example in these economically strapped times. Desperation and crisis do not suspend ethical imperatives. Indeed, that’s when values and integrity becomes most important. #40, in turn, leads to #25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!” as well as #28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.” As I wrote in the description of The Desperation Dodge:
Feeling like the walls are closing in and that all may be lost is when sound ethics stand as a bulwark against the temptation to prevail no matter what the cost to others. Hearing the voice in one’s head say, “I’ll do anything!” should set off the most jarring ethics alarms of them all, because the boundary between principle and expediency, good and evil, and courage and cowardice, lies dead ahead. If one is truly ethical, there are things you will never do and must never do, no matter what the crisis. Desperation doesn’t suspend ethics. It validates ethics.
But Governor McDonnell’s ethical instincts were being suffocated by a thick blanket of rationalizations, and if any ethics alarms were going off, neither he nor his wife could detect them.
Graphic: Washington Post