In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court vacated former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s eleven corruption convictions. The jury that convicted McDonnell was given erroneous instructions, according to the Court. At issue was the question of what constitutes an “official act.”
The Supreme Court concluded that setting up meetings, calling public officials, or hosting events — all things that the Governor did on behalf of businessman Jonnie Williams — did not, on their own, qualify as official actions.
The Justices took a more narrow view and stated that an official act is one where a public official makes a decision, takes action, or agrees to take action.
The Supreme Court did not condone or excuse McDonnell’s behavior and left open the possibility of a re-trial.
Despite this outcome, we still believe that McDonnell’s actions on behalf of Williams were corrupt. We are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision because it will likely make prosecuting future public corruption cases even more difficult.
Narrowing the definition of an official act raises the bar and may make it easier for public officials to legally engage in questionable quid pro quo arrangements. The decision also underscores the need to demand integrity from our leaders and rid government of corruption.
The loans and the gifts (worth approximately $175,000) that Williams gave McDonnell did not buy him an act of law or an administrative ruling, but they did buy him high level access — a valuable commodity with the potential to provide lucrative and ongoing returns. McDonnell made it possible for Williams to meet with the key decision makers he needed to reach to promote a dietary supplement his company had developed.
Access can pave the way for official acts like laws and administrative rulings. And if access can be bought, wealthy constituents enjoy a huge advantage with lawmakers who can legally accept gifts. Characterizing McDonnell’s actions as the sort of thing that “conscientious public officials” do for constituents “all the time” ignores reality. There is a big difference between helping a constituent figure out whether they qualify for Medicaid, and hosting a luncheon for them and their handpicked guests at the governor’s mansion.
Governors and other public officials exercise influence by nature of the positions they hold. They can use their power to pressure lower ranking officials and staff to take action, all without having to issue explicit orders. Abusing this power, in exchange for thousands in gifts and loans, is, in our view, corrupt.
The Supreme Court’s ruling highlights how crucial it is for states to pass tough gift laws. In response to the McDonnell case, Virginia’s General Assembly passed legislation placing a $100 cap on gifts to public officials from lobbyists and people with state business. However, as we previously discussed, the Virginia gift rules have several loopholes, namely exempting gifts from “personal friends,” (McDonnell has described Jonnie Williams as a friend), and excluding from the cap travel, food, or beverages for “widely attended meetings.”
We believe that citizens deserve ethical and honest leaders who reject pay-to-play politics. For this reason, TI-USA has issued a transparency challenge to federal and state candidates, asking them to (among other things) voluntarily disclose on their campaign websites their financial assets, tax returns, and gifts valued at $200 or more.
By demanding strong gift and disclosure laws, and by holding elected officials accountable to those laws, all citizens — not just the wealthy — can have a voice in government. We expect candidates to be transparent while campaigning and while in office.
Marian Currinder is the Policy Director for the government accountability portfolio at Transparency International-USA.