The topic is public corruption. The context is the recent Supreme Court hearing on the 2014 corruption trial of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife. And my respectful request is that you read to the end of this column prior to coming to judgment.
My opinion may be unique. Service in the state legislature, Congress, and as governor of Maryland makes it so. In fact, it is precisely my public service that has me concerned about United States vs. McDonnell — and what seems to be a prosecutorial enthusiasm for the criminalization of traditional constituent service — or — common gestures and acts performed by public officials.
Four examples for your ethical consideration:
Governor Smith receives a $1,000 campaign contribution from Mr. Jones. Subsequently, Mr. Jones asks Governor Smith to meet with his secretary of commerce regarding a new widget made by Jones' company. Governor Smith happily arranges the meeting. Some weeks later, another $1,000 contribution arrives for the governor's re-election.
Same facts as #1 but this time Mr. Jones invites Governor Smith to his company's "town hall" wherein the governor does a tour and question/answer session before 150 employees.
Same facts as #2 but this time Mr. Jones asks Governor Smith if he can brief the Engineering Department at State U on the wonderful qualities of his new widget. The governor happily arranges the briefing with the department chair.
Same facts as #3 but this time Governor Smith directs his department chair to render a positive opinion on the new widget.
There is, of course, a multitude of facts that could be plugged into this scenario. But only example #4 is illegal. And herein lies the problem: Political life is chock full of situations that look more like 1, 2, and 3. In fact, every day of every week, thousands of such requests arrive in executive and legislative offices around the country. Most of the requests are generated by people who have never contributed a political penny — they simply need help in navigating government bureaucracy. And truth be told, the contribution history of the constituent in need of help is irrelevant — it's called "casework" — and it's the lifeblood of every public official's staff.
Just about all of the political corruption cases that make the news, however, involve folks who are to one extent or another in positions to impact public officials. This is why the McDonnell case is so troublesome — and important.
The salacious headlines seem to be directly from Hollywood: A connected family friend with a new diet supplement business — a receptive first lady with an appreciation for the finer things in life — $170,000 in gifts received by Virginia's First Family — and an interested governor. Such a script confirms the general public's worst suspicions. Here, greed, ego and hubris were abundantly present. Yet, said gifts (if they are disclosed) were illegal under Virginia's permissive ethics laws; neither is hubris a criminal (let alone a federal) offense.
Rather, the central issue in McDonnell's case is whether the act of arranging a meeting with a Cabinet official (or any other official person) on behalf of a benefactor was enough of a "quo" to satisfy an (illegal) "quid" — .
If you think this is not a significant case, think again. Counsels from five presidential administrations (Republican and Democrat) submitted briefs McDonnell — an occurrence so rare that it garnered the attention of Chief Justice Roberts during oral argument.
How untimely for our legal system to produce a case with a clear "ask" but no convenient "deliverable" during such a cynical, anti-establishment cycle. Indeed, few voters feel empathy for the McDonnells or any similarly situated elected official. Seems that "piling on" may cost your team fifteen yards in the NFL, but it is a time-honored tradition in the rough and tumble world of politics.
Yet, we should care about over-zealous prosecutors and the considerable damage they can inflict. These mostly good folks (I'm married to one) have access to every lever of governmental power. Such power is often utilized to crush so-called "targets." But we the public have a right to expect the appropriate use of this power. In other words, the considerable downside of public life should be further denigrated by aggressive prosecutions brought against those who committed politics — not criminal acts — on behalf of constituents who may have provided political support.
I'm fond of reminding audiences that the best case scenario for any public official is to leave the public stage with (1.) your plaques, and (2.) your reputation. That's about as good as public life gets.
Hopefully, the Supreme Court will use the McDonnell case to draw a bright and shining line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Our political system will be better for it.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich is a Washington Examiner columnist, partner at King & Spalding and author of three books, including the recently released Turning Point. He was governor of Maryland from 2003 - 2007.