Virginia next week will see something it has never seen before — a former governor standing before the bar of justice, charged with committing crimes while in office.
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell faces 13 felony counts under what the public knows loosely as “corruption” charges, essentially that he took $165,000 in jewelry, fancy clothes, golf trips, cash, stock and loans from the head of a struggling dietary supplement maker and in return used the power of his office to promote the company.
Is McDonnell guilty? Twelve of our fellow citizens will hear the evidence and tell us.
But we know this much already: This will not be pretty.
The gifts are not in dispute, only whether they were part of a quid pro quo.
Virginia likes to think of itself as a dignified state, far above the political squalor of, say, New Jersey, Louisiana, Illinois or whatever your favorite point of comparison is.
And yet . . . Virginia is a state that allows officeholders to accept personal gifts, no matter how large, as long as they’re disclosed.
The General Assembly may grind to a halt over whether to extend Medicaid to 400,000 people without health care, but legislators this past session found time to reach a perfect bipartisan consensus on one thing: accepting gifts. They still want to do it.
“How do you draw the line?” said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County. “At the end of the day, we couldn’t. Being treated to a meal by a big bad corporation was impossible to distinguish from a legislator going to have dinner at their local Farm Bureau meeting.”
Yet legislators draw lines lots of other places, and on lots of other things.
The free meal from the farmers at the Ruritan Hall is hardly the scandal. How about this? Tickets to football games, or conventions at pricey resorts are so commonplace they barely raise an eyebrow. Some legislators even score overseas trips under the guise of “fact-finding,” with values close to $10,000.
Should we then be surprised that a wealthy businessman showers $165,000 on a governor and his family?
Or that the state’s tobacco commission tries to cook up a full-time job for a sitting state senator — one for which he’s surely qualified, but one whose departure would produce certain desirous political results for one party and also allow his daughter to be named a judge?
The FBI is investigating the circumstances of state Sen. Phil Puckett’s surprise resignation (and to his credit, he did not accept the tobacco job), an inquiry that some have called political.
The argument there is the same as in the McDonnell case: What’s the problem? This is just politics as usual. Or, as former state Attorney General Andrew Miller put it in a recent letter to the feds: “If you will pardon my English, big damn deal!”
This is a sad case all around. Whatever you thought of his policies, McDonnell presided with the gray-suited style that Virginia expects of its chief executives. McDonnell’s defense will rest, in part, on making the case that federal prosecutors are trying to criminalize routine politics — that he didn’t do anything that other governors haven’t done before him.
None of what emerges is likely to inspire the public to put more faith in their government, and none of it will ease the public’s cynicism toward politics in general.
The crime here may be what’s not criminal.