Defining corruption down
In their unanimous McDonnell decision, the justices are defining corruption away
The best way to reduce corruption, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, is to define it so narrowly that no one can be found guilty of committing it.
On June 27 the court unanimously tossed out a verdict reached by a Virginia jury finding former Governor Bob McDonnell guilty of improperly assisting vitamin salesman Jonnie Williams. Williams lavished McDonnell and his family with $175,000 in money and gifts, including $15,000 for his daughter’s wedding and $10,000 for another daughter’s engagement. McDonnell helped Williams by convening meetings, hosting receptions, and pestering his staff for updates about Williams’s business requests.
Never mind. According to the court, McDonnell may have acted lawfully. Federal law makes it a crime for a public official to “receive or accept anything of value” in return for being “influenced in the performance of any official act.” But the court has been defining deviancy down for politicians and influence peddlers. Two years ago, in a case involving campaign contribution limits, it defined governmental corruption as acts involving a quid pro quo: “a direct exchange of an official act for money.” Now the court has decided that a lot of what elected officials do all day isn’t, ahem, “official.”
According to the court, an official act “must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee.” Elected officials, however, routinely exercise power and wield influence in more subtle ways.
The court’s decision was based on an overblown concern: “Officials might wonder,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, “whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.” Yet since the adoption of federal antibribery laws decades ago, the lobbying industry has exploded, and elected officials perform an ever-widening array of constituent services. The high court is ignoring a real problem out of concern for an imaginary one.
Federal prosecutors now must decide whether to retry McDonnell. His actions may have been permissible under Virginia’s notoriously lax ethics laws, and his “unofficial” acts may be acceptable to the Supreme Court. But a jury may still find that he exerted undue pressure on his underlings.
However the case is resolved, the public should demand tougher and more explicit anticorruption laws at all levels. “Official acts” should be defined more broadly. Gifts of any amount should be illegal. Campaign donations from those with business before the government should be severely restricted. Disclosure of personal finances should be required. Justice can’t be blind to corruption, even if the Supreme Court is.