WHEN ORDINARY mortals need to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to bail themselves out of financial straits, they generally cannot count on a rich, favor-seeking friend to agree to a loan on sweetheart terms — 12 minutes after being asked. When ordinary mortals are presented with a very expensive gift — a Rolex watch worth $7,000, say — they generally know, or would certainly ascertain, the original source of such unusual generosity. When ordinary mortals plan a golf trip, a son-in-law does not clear the way by instructing staff to find free or discounted courses and lodging by mentioning that the golfer in question is, well, the governor of Virginia.
A jury will soon decide the fate of former governor Robert F. McDonnell — specifically, whether he swapped the prestige of his office and official favors for at least $177,000 in loans, cash, vacations, plane rides and sundry gifts ranging from a spin in a Ferrari to that Rolex watch, all courtesy of Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the garrulous businessman who sought access to the governor.
We won’t prejudge the jury’s verdict, or Mr. McDonnell’s strategy of trashing his wife and laying bare his marital troubles as a means of challenging the prosecutors’ contention that the first couple conspired to trade official favors in return for Mr. Williams’s unceasing largess. The key question in this trial — whether Mr. McDonnell provided a real and substantial “quo” in return for Mr. Williams’s ample “quid” — will likely be answered in the federal courtroom in Richmond.
Indisputably, though, the trial illuminated Mr. McDonnell’s sense of entitlement — the assumption that he somehow deserved to radically alter and improve his material circumstances simply by virtue of the office he held.
No doubt, Mr. McDonnell was not the first or only elected official to grasp for the good life while the grasping was good, starting almost immediately upon taking office. Granted, “friends” in political life — situational, mercenary and often temporary — may bear little resemblance to real friends. Mr. Williams said, plausibly, that he regarded his interactions with the McDonnells as strictly business. Mr. McDonnell would have the jury believe he was betrayed by a man he “misjudged” as “a true friend.”
Whatever the judicial outcome, the line between ethical and unethical conduct in public office is not so complicated. It is wrong for public officeholders to rake in personal gifts, cash and loans from people seeking favors and benefits conferred by government. It is wrong to leverage the power of incumbency to seek and solicit gifts, cash and loans. It is wrong to push the limits by dodging full disclosure of gifts, cash and loans.
But that’s a mild way of putting it. Mr. McDonnell insinuated pay-to-play ethics in a state previously known for good government. He preached public austerity while enjoying the fruits of private luxury. He behaved as though the privileges of office provided carte blanche authority to play by special rules. Whether he is a criminal or not, he certainly is guilty.
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