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:
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.