Virginia’s legislators and governor should embrace a total ban on gifts of any value from private interests, including lobbyists, to lawmakers. I say this not because I think politicians can be bought with a free cheeseburger or Redskins tickets. I do not believe that at all, but it seems clear that a great majority of the general public does.
I should know. In 2010, a federal jury convicted me of honest services fraud, a junior varsity form of bribery, for giving numerous small gifts to members of Congress and their staffs while I worked as a lobbyist.
From my prison bunk in Maryland, I offer this unsolicited but hard-learned advice for the commonwealth’s lawmakers and lobbyists:
Zero is the right “limit.” Lawmakers should not pick some low-dollar value for a gift limit. Go with zero. First, if you create a limit, no matter how reasonable-sounding, people will try to abuse it. When Congress limited gifts to $50 in the 1990s, the late Abe Pollin allegedly responded by setting the value of a ticket to a Verizon Center skybox at $48. Second, do not be fooled into thinking that limiting the size of permissible gifts solves the problem. Numerous psychologists and behavioral economists have confirmed the principle of reciprocity: People are hard-wired to repay even small favors or gifts. For officeholders, this benign, evolutionary instinct could come back to hurt them.
Any legal prohibition should also apply to lobbyists, not just the public officials they are trying to influence. I say this to protect lobbyists, not hurt them. Every lobbyist knows that conflicted feeling when a lawmaker whose help you need asks you for something you know he or she probably should not take. You want to say “yes” for your and your client’s benefit. And, let’s face it, if a gift prohibition applies only to the officeholder, a lobbyist will find it easy to do the wrong thing. The lobbyist’s other choice is to remind the lawmaker that he or she shouldn’t be asking for a particular gift. Your service as the lawmaker’s moral conscience will not be welcomed in most cases. Far better to be able to say, “Sorry, I would love to help, but I could go to jail if I say yes.”
If you don’t act, the feds will. A career-climbing federal prosecutor enjoys nothing so much as playing white knight to the scourge of public corruption, especially the corruption found in an opposing political party. Congress has given ambitious prosecutors a powerful weapon in the federal honest service statute. The law is so broad that every public official in the country — from a U.S. senator to a local dogcatcher — is subject to prosecution for accepting gifts from private interests.
If you get caught, you will almost certainly be convicted. News flash to lawmakers: The public doesn’t like you all that much, and it likes lobbyists even less. The level of cynicism about public officials and lobbyists is too high in my view for a healthy democracy, but it is real and you best beware. Most employees (read: prospective jurors) are not offered free meals, tickets and trips at their jobs and see no reason that public servants deserve such freebies.
I appreciate that many Virginia lawmakers might think that their integrity is being unfairly attacked because of the misdeeds of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R). Get over it. When 12 politician-hating laypeople convene in a jury room to decide what they think about powerful public servants accepting gifts from those who want power used on their behalf, they will not care how strongly you feel about your integrity. They will be happy to convict you.
Some lawmakers might worry that a ban on gifts will lead to fewer opportunities to meet with constituents and conduct commonwealth business in informal social settings. These relaxed events can improve government responsiveness by increasing interaction between the public and its elected leaders. And, some might be candid enough to admit, free hospitality and gifts make the job a little more fun. I get it. But I promise the commonwealth’s leaders and lobbyists that even without free gifts, being in politics will be more fun than being in prison.
The writer is an inmate at Cumberland Federal Prison Camp. Before entering prison, he was a freelance writer in Kensington and, before that, a federal lobbyist.