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Peter’s Take: There ‘Oughta Be A Law’ For Bob McDonnell

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

On April 27, the U.S. Supreme Court held an oral argument on former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s appeal of his federal criminal corruption conviction. Press reports on the oral argument suggest that the Supreme Court might end up overturning McDonnell’s conviction.

If the Supreme Court does rule in McDonnell’s favor, the average citizen should be justifiably outraged that what McDonnell did isn’t illegal. It reminds me of these lyrics.

Well there oughta be a law against what he’s done
Stole my heart and away he run
Didn’t leave me a thing but misery
And there oughta be a law against the way he’s hurtin’ me

What did Bob McDonnell do?

Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, accepted multiple expensive gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the boss of a dietary supplement manufacturer known as Star Scientific.

These gifts included several expensive vacations, a Rolex watch, a $20,000 shopping spree, $15,000 in catering expenses for a daughter’s wedding, joy rides in Williams’ Ferrari and tens of thousands of dollars in private loans. McDonnell promoted a Star Scientific product known as Anatabloc, hosted an event at the Governor’s mansion for the product, passed out samples, and encouraged research about the product by Virginia universities. In one case, McDonnell emailed Williams asking about a $50,000 loan, and six minutes later sent another email to his staff asking for an update on Anatabloc scientific research.

Discussion

In 2014, a federal jury convicted McDonnell and his wife on multiple counts of extortion under the Hobbs Act, a federal criminal statute prohibiting political corruption, and of “honest-services” fraud. The jury concluded that there was sufficient evidence of a connection between the actions the Governor took and the gifts and the other favors Williams provided.

The oral argument before the Supreme Court suggested that several Justices were skeptical that the jury should even have been allowed to reach these conclusions. As Dalia Lithwick, a veteran Supreme Court watcher, observed:

It will be an amazing thing if — in a year when voters across the spectrum are infuriated and sickened by the influence of money in politics — the Supreme Court decides that poor Bob McDonnell should be let off the hook because he only did what every politician does every day: Take a lot of money to open doors for a rich guy. But maybe the line between money and influence is too fuzzy and ubiquitous to even be said in words anymore. 

What about Virginia law?

At the time Bob McDonnell did what he did, there is a general legal consensus that no Virginia criminal statute would have prohibited his conduct. Moreover, at that time, there were no limits on the dollar amount of gifts that could be given by a donor to members of the executive branch or their families.

Conclusion

Only the stupidest gift giver or public official is likely to prepare a written record documenting that the donor of a Rolex watch is providing it to a public official in exchange for favorable government action by the public official. That should not be the only circumstance enabling a successful criminal prosecution:

Well there oughta be a law…
And there oughta be a law against the way he’s hurtin’ me.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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