What does $100,000 get you from a Virginia governor? According to federal prosecutors, that kind of money got former Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams special access to the executive mansion. Without pointing to any direct quid pro quo for Williams’ $100K-plus in gifts and loans, the Obama Justice Department has charged former governor Robert McDonnell and former first lady Maureen McDonnell with 14 felony counts, including a conspiracy to get Mr. Williams help with a questionable product produced by his troubled company.
The McDonnells strongly deny any wrongdoing, though they admit to breathtakingly bad judgment in accepting Williams’ gifts and money.
We confess to be hard-shell political commentators not shocked by much. But we were stunned to learn Gov. Terry McAuliffe is now offering a package of special gubernatorial privileges to those willing to write a $100,000 check to his new political action committee, Common Good VA. According to an e-mail from those soliciting the money, this cash gets you special access to McAuliffe and the governor’s policy advisers.
We predicted this very dodge in an earlier post pointing out that the much-ballyhooed “ethical reforms” from our leaders didn’t cover political action committees. Do these $100,000 donors get a discount if the budget stalemate isn’t resolved by the time of their first gubernatorial dinner reception, which is scheduled for the Spring?
We hope the question we raised in January is self-evident to all: leaving aside the McDonnells’ personal ethical failures, what, specifically, did they do for Mr. Williams beyond what apparently every other governor tries to do for their big-money backers? Why does it matter so much whether the money goes into the left or right pocket once you are governor?
Let’s cut to the bottom line: Given the legal theory offered by the federal government, how can McAuliffe ever do anything for these donors — as well as the ones who get less access for only giving $50,000 — without sending everyone to the penitentiary? What do federal prosecutors do when such donors wind up on a university board or if the governor makes an appearance or says something in public that results in good publicity for their businesses?
It is time for Virginians to wise up. We have allowed our state politics to become pay-to-play. The reason poor kids and hard-pressed working families suffer what Daniel Patrick Moynihan once called “benign neglect” is because they can’t pay. The governor, the legislature, even city governments are all one and the same now.
How many people in Virginia can afford to give $100,000 to secure a seat at dinners, retreats or roundtables with the governor and state policy experts, as the Common Good VA PAC solicitation promises?
Not many. Wealth, as the saying goes, has its privileges. But selling special access to government officials in this way creates a poisonous double standard feeding the toxic cynicism rampant in our culture. This self-reinforcing feedback loop serves no public purpose.
With all due respect to the new governor and his aides, the McDonnell indictment should have been a wake-up call on the need for genuine ethics reform. Democrats and Republicans promised the real deal last year. This is it?
There’s an old political story, attributed to legendary Louisiana Gov. Huey “The Kingfish” Long. It’s said that Long once tried to put the arm on someone to get a big contribution. Legend has it the exchange went something like this: “But Huey,” the man said in protest, “you aren’t running, you don’t need it to run the state, I will give it to you next time. Why must I give it now?”
The Kingfish replied. “The difference is that if you give it to me now, you get a good job, but if you wait for later, you only get good government.”
Selling special access to the governor of Virginia is simply not acceptable. What possible public good does it serve?
Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.