Four Supreme Court Decisions: Abortion, Guns, Affirmative Action, Corruption…And Ethics. Part 2: McDonnell v. United States

Virginia Governor McDonnell shows off the luxury watch he got as a gift from a businessman he barely knew who expected expected nothing in return...

Virginia Governor McDonnell shows off the luxury watch he got as a gift from a businessman he barely knew who expected expected nothing in return…

Governor Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s Republican governor from 2010 to 2014, was charged with using his office to assist businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who, often with Mrs. McDonnell as a conduit, gave his family wedding receptions, loans, vacations and jewelry worth more than $175,000. I wrote about this scandal here, here, and here. The gifts were legal, thanks to absurdly lenient Virginia ethics laws, just as they were obviously unethical, except perhaps to the clueless McDonnells.

Governor McDonnell arranged meetings for Williams and attended events with him. My favorite part of the criminal trial was when McDonnell claimed that he never dreamed that Williams expected anything in exchange for all of his gifts, and then Williams said that of course he expected some favors in return. The jury found that McDonnell’s actions amounted to corruption and a quid pro quo exchange amounting to bribery. A federal appeals court upheld the conviction.

The Supreme Court’s 8-0 decision this week to vacate the conviction upholds the principle that even if someone has done something obviously bad, there has to be a law against what was done before the act occurred in order to convict him. It’s a rather narrow decision. The Court points out that the law McDonnell was convicted of breaking requires “official acts” to be bought and sold for the law to be breached, but that all McDonnell did was hand out political favors to his “friend”: setting up meetings, communicating his favor, greasing the wheels, essentially. (Much is made of the fact that Williams didn’t benefit very much from any of this, which is just moral luck. It doesn’t make what the governor did any less sleazy.)

Wrote Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion for the unanimous Court: Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: CNN Morning Anchor Carol Costello

Sorry Carol; you should have had this years ago.

Sorry Carol; you should have had this years ago.

I just checked. I was certain that I had named Carol Costello an Ethics Dunce a half-dozen times at least, and discovered, to my shock and shame, that she has never been designated one here. Unethical Quotes of the Month, the chief offender in various disgraceful and biased performances by CNN or the news media as a whole, but somehow the most throbbingly ethics-challenged broadcast journalist not employed by MSNBC or Fox has never been honored as an Ethics Alarms Ethics Dunce!

Well, that streak ends now, and I can make it short and sweet.

This morning, Costello once again confidently proclaimed her lack of familiarity with the concept of ethics by summing up the conviction of former Virginian Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife for bribery and corruption this way:

“Now the Virginia legislature needs to pass tough new ethics laws so this never happens again.

I’m just going to go into my shed with a hammer, and club myself into oblivion, because obviously my life is pointless and an utter failure. Continue reading

Virginia’s McDonnells, Masters Of Rationalization


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. Continue reading

The Fifth Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The Worst of Ethics 2013 (Part Two of Three)


The Ethics Alarms review of a truly disheartening year in ethics continues with fallen heroes, ficks, fools and follies with Part Two of the 2013 Worst of Ethics awards….and there’s one last section to come. Be very afraid:

Fallen Hero of the Year

Edward Snowden, whose claim to civil disobedience was marred by his unwillingness to accept the consequences of his actions, whose pose as a whistle-blower was ruined by the disclosure that he took his job with the intention of exposing national secrets, and whose status as a freedom-defending patriot lies in ruins as he seeks harbor with not only America’s enemy, but a human rights-crushing enemy at that. The NSA’s over-reach and mismanagement is a scandal, but Snowden proved that he is no hero.

Unmitigated Gall of  The Year

Minnesota divorce lawyer Thomas P. Lowes not only violated the bar’s ethics rules by having sex with his female  client…he also billed her his hourly fee for the time they spent having sex , a breach of the legal profession’s rule against “unreasonable fees.” Yes, he was suspended. But for not long enough…

Jumbo Of The Year

(Awarded To The Most Futile And Obvious Lie)

Jumbo film

“Now, if you had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.”

—–President Obama

2013 Conflicts of Interest of the Year Continue reading

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell On How To Sound Like A Crook

Why is this man smiling?

Why is this man smiling?

I posted earlier on the blatant violation of basic conflict of interest principles (not to mention de facto bribery) by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R). Following increased criticism and talk of forcing him to resign, McDonnell announced on his weekly radio show (“Ask the Unethical Governor,” or something like that) that he was returning the many gifts and repaying the loans that came to him and members of his family from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie William.

His comments read like a primer on how to sound like a slippery and dishonest politician, which, it seems clear, he is. Here are  some highlights, with my comments in bold: Continue reading

Anthony Weiner, Gov. McDonnell, Mayor Filner and the Rest: Degrading Democracy, Tainting Leadership

Hey, Mayor Filner, if San Diegans decide they have a proble being led by a serial sexual harasser, you can run for Mayor of New York!

Hey, Mayor Filner, if San Diegans decide they have a problem being led by a serial sexual harasser, you can run for Mayor of New York!

The mandate for leaders and potential leaders who have engaged in blatantly dishonest, corrupt, undignified or otherwise unethical conduct to remove themselves from office or consideration for office is not that, as hundreds of foolish pundits (like this guy) will try to convince you, hypocrites with a keyboard or a vote falsely pretend that such conduct is unique. There are two justifications for the unethical to resign from office, both undeniable and ancient. I have written enough, for now, about the first—that such conduct demonstrates untrustworthiness, the quality a leader must not have— and want to focus on the second, which is this: if they do not step down and away, such leaders and potential leaders mock the aspirations of democracy, insult its underlying hopes, and degrade, by their persistence, the standards of future leadership.

Once, this was thoroughly understood. Leaders who were exposed as lacking honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect for their own office resigned or withdrew from public life, as self-executed punishment and their last chance at redemption. Democracy, as John Adams wrote, is supposed to be a system that elevates the most accomplished, the most able, the most trusted and the most ethically sound to leadership, for obvious reasons. They are qualified to be leaders because, bluntly, they are better than the rest of us. They are also, because they are better, supposed to be capable of sacrifice and humility, and to recognize that power is a privilege, not a possession to be retained at all costs. Continue reading

Gov. Bob McDonnell And The Compliance Dodge

GiftsThe bottom line is that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell accepted what looks to any objective observer like a bribe–several bribes, in fact—and whether he is in technical compliance with his states laws and ethics rules doesn’t change the fact that he is, by definition, corrupt and untrustworthy.

McDonnell, once considered a rising star in the national GOP firmament–and who knows? Considering the competition, he may be still!—has been steadily soiled and diminished by  revelations of dubious gifts and payments to his family and a corporation jointly owned by him and his wife by wealthy businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr, chief executive of dietary supplement manufacturer Star Scientific Inc. So far, the gifts and payments appear to include, Continue reading