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McDonnell Appeal Begs Question: What Is Corruption?

McDonnell is appealing his conviction of 11 counts of bribery, conspiracy and extortion. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As Bob McDonnell’s lawyers gear up to appeal the former Virginia Governor’s conviction on 11 counts of bribery, conspiracy and extortion, federal prosecutors, legal experts and elected officials around the country are all watching closely.  

The McDonnell case hinges on a question that goes to the heart of the national campaign finance debate, namely: What is corruption? Must it involve out-and-out bribery — the deliberate exchange of money or favors for official acts? Or can corruption take the form of ingratiation, influence and distortions of public policy?  

McDonnell’s lawyers argued during his dramatic public trial that businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. received nothing beyond routine courtesies in exchange for his $177,000 in gifts and loans to the McDonnells. Some experts argue that McDonnell has strong grounds for an appeal, and that his indictment effectively criminalizes politics and constituent service.  

But a Virginia jury lost no time indicting McDonnell on 11 criminal counts and his wife, Maureen, on nine, after hearing descriptions of the designer clothes, $6,500 engraved Rolex watch, lakeside vacation, free golf outings, wedding catering and a low-interest loan that the McDonnells received from Williams. Particularly damning was an email McDonnell sent to an aide to discuss Anatabloc, the dietary supplement Williams sought to promote, just six minutes after McDonnell spoke with Williams about a $50,000 loan.  

McDonnell’s official appeal must wait until his sentencing in January. The appeals process is likely to drag on for months as it wends through the courts — possibly reaching as high as the Supreme Court. Though the McDonnells were indicted under ethics and not campaign finance laws, the question of what constitutes corruption cuts across both sets of rules. And the Supreme Court has defined campaign finance corruption increasingly narrowly.  

In April, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission struck the aggregate campaign contribution limits, a court plurality concluded that election laws may only target ‘quid pro quo’ corruption in the form of official acts exchanged for money.  

But in a strongly-worded dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer and three other justices objected that McCutcheon flies in the face of previous court rulings, including the high court’s 2002 McConnell v. FEC ruling. That ruling, which upheld the soft money ban enacted with the McCain-Feingold law, concluded that Congress had an interest in preventing more than “simple cash-for-votes corruption,” wrote Breyer. He quoted that 2002 ruling as follows:  

“Just as troubling to a functioning democracy as classic quid pro quo corruption is the danger that officeholders will decide issues not on the merits or the desires of their constituencies, but according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the officeholder.”  

Indeed, many on Capitol Hill – mostly Democrats but some Republicans, too – complain that the pressure to constantly raise money has contributed to partisanship, gridlock and a sense of disconnect from average constituents.  

“It is a very rare exception where there is a quid pro quo – a donation for an action,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., recently told CQ Roll Call. “But when you are spending a lot of time with people who believe a certain set of things, it’s hard not to be influenced by that viewpoint.”  

Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet sounded a similar note during debate last week on the constitutional amendment that he introduced with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Turned back on a procedural vote, the amendment would have authorized Congress and the states to limit political spending, contrary to prior Supreme Court rulings.  

“The court imagined a world where people with bags of money are wandering around Capitol Hill and only then could you regulate it, trying to get people to do something for them,” Bennet said on the Senate floor. “Ninety-nine percent [of] what happens around here is people trying to keep you from doing something, trying to keep things the same. Trying to keep the incumbent interests embedded in our tax code, in our regulatory code, in our statute book. The Supreme Court was silent completely on that corruption, and I would argue that is at the core of our dysfunction as a Congress.”  

Republicans denounced the proposed amendment as a violation of the First Amendment, and as an election year ploy by Democrats, who have railed against large, unrestricted contributions throughout the midterm.  

Such anti-big money attacks have failed to resonate much in the past, partly because voters tend to regard both parties as equally reliant on special interests. But there are signs that voters are beginning to pay attention. Advocates of the constitutional amendment delivered thousands of petitions to Capitol Hill and staged events at congressional offices around the country last week.  

Virginia voters, too, are taking notice. State legislators may or may not toughen up Virginia’s historically lax ethics rules in response to the McDonnell indictments. (Virginia also imposes no limits on campaign contributions.)  

But the scandal has reportedly sent a chill through the legislature, prompting state officials to think twice before taking the lavish gifts that had become routine to doing business in the Old Dominion. Judges and prosecutors will continue to haggle over what constitutes corruption. But jurors — and voters — have a tendency to know it when they see it.  

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