The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Supreme Court may clear McDonnell. But Virginians won’t forget his sleaze.

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

THE CORRUPTION charges against former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) raised two questions: whether his actions constituted a crime, and whether he debased his office and abused the public trust. The first question, as argument before the Supreme Court on Wednesday showed, may be a thorny one. The second question is all too easy to answer.

Outside the court, after the justices heard intricate legal arguments about how thinly to slice the federal definition of corruption, the convicted former governor self-servingly avowed that he had never "done anything that would abuse the powers of my office."

That is false.

Mr. McDonnell and his family accepted cash, gifts, interest-free loans, luxury vacations, expensive meals and extravagant shopping sprees from a wealthy businessman who was looking for favorable treatment from the state. Caught red-handed, the governor repaid $124,000 to Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the fast-talking, favor-seeking dietary supplement maker whose largesse enabled the governor and his family to live beyond their means. The array of baubles and bennies with which Mr. Williams secretly plied the governor, his wife and their children included an engraved Rolex watch; a trip to Cape Cod; a flight to the Final Four; golf trips; a $15,000 check for catering at a daughter's wedding; a $10,000 engagement check to another McDonnell daughter; vacations in Florida and at Mr. Williams's Piedmont lake house; and a Manhattan shopping blowout for Maureen McDonnell, the governor's wife (price tag: nearly $20,000).

Virginians also may recall the favors Mr. Williams received from Mr. McDonnell, whose uncanny timing often seemed to suggest a quid pro quo. Among those favors was a luncheon at the governor's official state mansion on the occasion of Mr. Williams's company, Star Scientific, unveiling its tobacco-based dietary supplement, Anatabloc — the vanishingly rare product rollout over which a sitting Virginia governor and first lady presided.

It is possible the Supreme Court will accept Mr. McDonnell’s argument that the access and actions he extended to Mr. Williams were quotidian courtesies, beyond the reach of federal bribery law. It’s conceivable the justices will conclude that the favors he granted Mr. Williams, who hoped the governor’s influence would persuade state universities to run tests on Anatabloc, did not amount to “official actions,” under a close reading of federal bribery law.

On the broader question of what constitutes sleaze and abuse in public office, Virginians need not await the court’s ruling. To borrow from Justice Potter Stewart: We know it when we see it.

Read more:

Randall Eliason: The McDonnell conviction should stand

Scott Peterson: Former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell should go to prison

C. Boyden Gray: Why the Robert McDonnell case is a threat to the Constitution

George F. Will: Virginia’s former governor faces prison over politics

The Post’s View: Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s real punishment is disgrace