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

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

Ethics Tales Of Three Governors, As Hope Slowly Dwindles


The U.S.’s recent experiment with a Senator-President has been disheartening—persuasive words unhinged to action and actual principles. There was a remarkable example of this in the President’s NSA speech, in fact, in a quote that would have been the Ethics Quote of the Month had it not been so cynical coming from him. The President said

“Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached. Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends on the law to constrain those in power.”

Wonderful! If only this had been uttered by a leader with credibility and integrity, rather than one who has shrugged off, firing no one, interference with the federal election process by the IRS, illegal spying by the NSA, and the intentional facilitation of illegal firearms coming into the murderous hands of drug cartels by his Justice Department, after bombing Libya illegally in defiance of law, selectively enforcing immigration laws, using drones to kill American citizens abroad without due process, making recess appointments when the Senate wasn’t in recess, and more recently, unconstitutionally amending the ACA on his own after it was signed into law.

This was all foretold, however. Community organizers and senators make speeches and inspire people, but unfortunately seldom have a clue how to actually govern unless, as Obama himself has wistfully noted, they have absolute power. This is why, in theory, at least, state governors, who at least have experience governing, now seem like a better recruitment field for the next occupant of the Oval Office. It sounds good in the abstract, but the recent news from the state houses  is like ice water in the face—-

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

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

In Marion’s Footsteps: the Jaw-Dropping Shamelessness of Harry Thomas Jr.

A true role model: Washington D.C. politicians ask, "What would Marion Barry do?"

The most notable scoundrel in recent Washington D.C. government history is former mayor and current City Council member Marion Barry, he of  “The bitch set me up!” fame. What marked Barry was and is his remarkable shamelessness. Whether he was caught smoking crack, or giving government salaries to girlfriends, or not paying his taxes, or engaging in any number of other public and personal outrages, his attitude has always been to shrug his shoulders and presume that everyone will just let him go on being an elected political leader, as if his complete disrespect for law, honesty and responsibility is irrelevant to his qualifications to serve. And you know what? In the District of Columbia, he is correct.

He is also not alone in this attitude, in part because Barry has helped mightily to warp the ethical culture in his city over the past three decades. His most recent disciple is D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who has just agreed to repay the District $300,000 of the taxpayer dollars he misappropriated  for his personal and political use. D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan announced last week that his office was withdrawing a one million dollar lawsuit against Thomas in exchange for that settlement, saving the District the cost of litigation. The lawsuit had been backed up with strong evidence that Thomas used public funds to fund golf trips to Pebble Beach, buy himself an Audi SUV, and in a nice touch of class, pay for a $143.71 visit to Hooters. Funds budgeted by the council for youth baseball was diverted by Thomas to Team Thomas, a nonprofit founded and controlled by the Council member. Naturally, Thomas also was shown to have engaged in plenty of old-fashioned graft,  soliciting gifts and contributions from private businesses contracting with the city.

Is Thomas ashamed? Contrite? Apologetic? Nah! And he isn’t planning on leaving his job, either. Instead, he issued this nauseating statement, saying in part: Continue reading