Supreme Court Allows Still More Money Into PoliticsAll those gifts to Virginia governor were innocent Aug 1 2016
What are we to make of the Supreme Court's overturning the conviction of Virginia's former governor, Bob McDonnell, at the end of June? Kaine on the Take: August 4: Corporations and lobbying firms gave then-Virginia governor Tim Kaine free rides around the country on private jets and gifts worth more than $160,000 at the same time that their business interests were before the state government. So much for the squeaky clean image the Democrats portray of Hillary Clinton's pick for vice president.
unanimous 8-0. True, the court ruled on grounds specific to this case, saying that the instructions to the convicting jury were overly vague. True also that the court remanded the case to the lower court for that reason, which left open the possibility that McDonnell could be retried. And true as well that >Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Court, found McDonnell's actions "distasteful". But the question is how wide will be the fallout affecting corruption cases now being tried and those in the future.
The decision drew little attention, announced as it was in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. The question was whether it was illegal for McDonnell and wife to accept while in office lavish gifts from the CEO of a food supplement business named Jonnie Williams, absent proof that McDonnell had taken any official action in Williams' behalf. He wanted the governor to spur the state's public universities to conduct research on a product that Williams' company marketed. His hope was that the research would win official confirmation that the tobacco-derived supplement alleviates pain. From the beginning of McDonnell's term in 2009, the businessman had showered gifts upon the pair: a Rolex watch, a $20,000 shopping spree for wife Maureen's insatiable fondness for luxury goods, a $120,000 loan, a $10,000 gift to the McDonnell's daughter when she became engaged. Williams even paid $15,000 for the daughter's wedding expenses.
McDonnell did prod the universities and even threw a party at the governor's mansion to promote Williams' quest, but the justices' view was that this did not rise to the level of graft. There was not enough of a quo in return for the quid, they decided, despite an e-mail that surfaced in which the governor asked Williams about a $50,000 loan and "six minutes later" e-mailed his staff for an update about that university research request.
Williams' lawyers and a bipartisan group of former attorneys general filed an amicus brief arguing that the appeals court had “criminalized the routine practice by public officials of giving access to their constituents, including those who have supported the official”. Isn't it the role of elected officials to represent their constituents, to meet with them, extend help to them?
Well, yes, but aren't these officials already paid to perform this service? The Court is effectively saying that our elected representatives owe us nothing; in addition to their paycheck we need to pay them indulgences to go to bat for us and in the case of McDonnell, whopping amounts! So indifferent to swag was Roberts in his opinion that he wrote so explicitly: "Our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns…". Really?
It is feared that the follow on from the ruling will be open season for politicians to use their offices to produce a second income, so much harder will it be to prove that gifts amount to bribes and corruption. So in need of money are they, thanks to the explosion of money in politics, that won't they feel free to shake down for gifts those who ask for assistance? And won't that mean that those unable to pay gratuities to the representatives they vote into office will get less access than ever?
By this action, the Supreme Court has expanded even further the free movement of money into politics, as they did in the horrendous Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited contributions by corporations and unions to super PACs, so long as they (supposedly) had no direct connection to the candidates they support; and then again in McCutcheon, which removed the overall dollar cap restricting how much individuals could donate to parties, candidates and campaigns (while keeping the $2,600 gift limit to any one candidate).
Once again exhibiting a naïveté about how the real world works, the Court seems unmindful that they have likely created a marketplace for influence peddling. In Citizens United, Justice Anthony Kennedy gave us a glimpse of just how remote from political reality a justice can become over long tenure when he wrote that, because free speech by checkbook “may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt”. Nor does it mean that, in their need to amass ever larger campaign chests that owes to this court's opening the money floodgates, those officials are not pressured by donors to deliver more than just a sympathetic hearing.
The New York Times thought to interview Jack Abramoff about the Court's naïveté after the decision was handed down. Abramoff should know. He spent almost four years in federal prison for conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion after spreading gifts around Washington in return for votes (all the while swindling their clients, Native American tribes, for which his group was lobbying. "I continue to be concerned by what seems to be a lack of understanding on the part of the justices that a little bit of money can breed corruption", said Ambramoff.
And Donald Trump helpfully drew back the curtain on how things actually happen when he said about his own donations to candidates that, "When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them”.
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