In any discussion of public corruption, one of the first places likely to get mentioned is the District of Columbia. A two-year string of convictions of city council members and political operatives probably contributes to that perception.
But breathless media reporting on wrongdoing in the city probably adds to the notion that the District is full of grasping, self-aggrandizing politicians who spend their time finding ways to enrich themselves at public expense.
In fact, neighboring Virginia and Maryland can lay claim to chief executives whose greed and rapaciousness make D.C. officials — past and present — look like pikers.
As was amply demonstrated this week in Virginia, moral stumbling, shame and disgrace are not unique to officials in the District.
The 14-count federal indictment handed up against former governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, portrays a gluttonous couple at the state’s highest level, descending upon a deep-pocketed businessman who was out to get privileged treatment from Richmond.
The scandal, however, contains a feature not seen in this city’s history of misdeeds: an accused first lady.
Maureen McDonnell has been charged by federal prosecutors with trying to “corruptly obstruct, influence, and impede an official proceeding of the Grand Jury” by writing and delivering a handwritten note to a businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., in which “she falsely attempted to make it appear that she and JW had previously discussed and agreed that [she] would return certain designer luxury goods rather than keep them permanently.” The feds out and out called the Old Dominion’s former first lady a liar.
The indictment accused the McDonnells of committing wire fraud and said that they used the governorship to enrich themselves by asking for and getting payments, loans and gifts from Williams in exchange for the governor helping the businessman pursue support from Virginia’s government.
The former first lady, prosecutors charge, was an essential part of a criminal conspiracy.
To date, the District has not experienced anything like that.
The McDonnells have denounced the charges. Bob McDonnell said this week that he has been “falsely and wrongfully accused.”
An indictment is not a conviction, and the McDonnells deserve the presumption of innocence. But the charges against Virginia’s former first couple suggest that their desire for conspicuous consumption would make Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker proud.
Now to be fair, Virginia and the District have had Maryland examples to follow.
One Marylander even made it to the second-highest office in the nation. I speak of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned in 1973 after pleading no contest to tax evasion. Agnew was allowed to plead and leave office in exchange for the government not pressing to indict him for allegedly taking more than $100,000 in kickbacks and bribes from highway contractors while serving as Baltimore County executive, Maryland governor and vice president of the United States.
Let’s stay with Maryland a bit longer.
Agnew, upon becoming vice president-elect, was succeeded by Marvin Mandel as the state’s 56th governor.
Mandel, too, ran afoul of federal prosecutors. He was convicted in August 1977 of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of a conspiracy to give five co-defendants, who owned a Prince George’s County racetrack, extra racing days.
Mandel was forced to resign as governor, pay thousands in fines and serve 19 months of a four-year sentence.
His conviction and those of his co-defendants were, however, overturned in 1987 by a federal judge in Baltimore.
Why this trip down memory lane? Why focus on the former governor and missus across the Potomac?
Because in all the stories about ethical lapses and misbehavior by public officials around the country, the question of self-government never arises — except when it comes to the District of Columbia.
The stereotype of public officials as greedy, self-serving creatures gets applied to the District and, along with it, the suggestion that there is widespread corruption, which erodes the capacity to govern.
That is typical of the responses I get when I write about abuses in city government. Yet the thought of reexamining the capacity of Virginians or Marylanders to govern themselves never arises when scandal engulfs their public servants.
This column is not a nanny-nanny boo-boo taunt to Virginia or Maryland.
It is, however, a reminder that public corruption is no respecter of party, political jurisdiction, gender or race. And supporters of good government, regardless of where they live, are all in this together.
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