Former VA governor McDonnell to argue before SCOTUS that we have the right to buy influence

Early last year, former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison and two years on supervised release for, among other things, “obtaining property under color of official right.” His wife, Maureen, was convicted of the same charge, which stemmed from the two’s receipt of over $120,000 in gifts, loans and trips from Jonnie Williams, who ran a dietary supplement company. Williams also donated $100,000 to Governor McDonnell’s political action committee.

Governor McConnell appealed his case up to the Supreme Court, which is set to hear oral arguments today. And as the Los Angeles Times is reporting, his argument boils down to the idea that the exchange of goods for political considerations that he engaged in shouldn’t be illegal.

It says so, his lawyers claim, right there in Citizens United. From the Times:

In that case, the conservative majority not only freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on politics, but — in a less noticed clause — described buying access with officials as a time-honored part of American democracy.

“The possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner influence over or access to elected officials” is not evidence of bribery or corruption, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said two years ago in striking down the limits on how much in total a single donor may give to a field of candidates. “Ingratiation and access… are not corruption,” he said, quoting from the Citizens United opinion.

Bob McDonnell, via Wikimedia Commons

Bob McDonnell, via Wikimedia Commons

McDonnell’s attorneys have latched on to that legal rationale to argue that doing small favors for big donors is protected under the 1st Amendment.

“Paying for ‘access’ — the ability to get a call answered or a meeting scheduled — is constitutionally protected and an intrinsic part of our political system,” they said in their appeal. “If Gov. McDonnell can be imprisoned for giving routine access to a gift-giver, an official could equally be imprisoned for agreeing to answer a donor’s phone call about a policy issue.”

Setting aside for the moment that McDonnell did far more than simply arrange meeting with Williams — he also used the governor’s mansion to host a launch party for one of Williams’s products, he personally pitched Williams’ supplements to state officials and his wife actively helped arrange meetings for Williams with people who could help his company — his case sets an absurdly high bar for political corruption.

If the Court accepts his restatement of the logic set forth in Citizens United, it would be all but impossible to define anything outside of the stereotypical situation involving suitcases full of cash being exchanged in a parking garage as a bribe. Everything short of that is just two friends exercising their rights to speech and association.

The argument is essentially that, yes, McDonnell accepted six-figure sums from Williams in the form of loans, watches, vacations and wedding expenses; and yes, he in turn helped the person who gave him those gifts by giving them a competitive advantage in the marketplace. And sure, that may look like a bribe, but trust him; it isn’t. Because he says so.

Were Antonin Scalia still alive, it’d be not only possible but likely that McDonnell would win this case. Until very recently, there were five votes on the Court in favor of defining corruption as narrowly as possible. However, given what is likely to be a deadlocked 4-4 Court, he is unlikely to be able to overturn the his loss in lower court, and could be headed to prison soon.

At least when he gets out he’ll still be able to vote.

Update: Oral arguments just wrapped up, and folks who were in the room are saying that it doesn’t look good for anti-corruption laws:


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • armedliberal

    He will probably win. To conservatives, bribery is not a crime if large sums of money are involved and you are wearing a suit.

  • Butch1

    I can understand your feelings.

  • Butch1

    Why isn’t this scoundrel behind bars yet? Oh, I forgot . . . he was tried on the “first tier justice system.”

    The rest of us get tried under the “second-tier justice system” and we are sent to prison straightway and pay our hefty fines.

  • Ericakmason4

    “my room mate Lori Is getting paid on the internet 98$/hr”…..!cc306ctwo days ago grey MacLaren P1 I bought after earning 18,512 DoIIars..it was my previous month’s payout..just a little over.17k DoIIars Last month..3-5 hours job a day…with weekly payouts..it’s realy the simplest. job I have ever Do.. I Joined This 7 months. ago. and now making over. hourly 87 DoIIars…Learn. More right Here !cc306n:➽:➽:➽➽➽➽ http://GlobalSuperJobsReportsEmploymentsJunctionGetPayHourly$98…. .❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦::::::!cc306n….,..

  • bijou2

    Its time we change the way we run campaigns, and remove the need for donations to candidates altogether. Every candidate should get equal air time on TV, Radio & Online–paid for by sponsors. Candidates answer questions posed by the their constituents. ( the questions would pertain to the type of office being sought) The questions could be submitted and picked randomly. We submit questions, we listen, we vote.

  • Demosthenes

    “Citizens United” stands for open and legal corruption unless there is explicit quid pro quo buying of a politician. It’s all logical and insane.

  • Nicholas A Kocal

    And according to republicans, suit cases full of cash in an underground parking lot are perfectly acceptable if it is to buy a vote for a corporate position that denies basic human rights.

  • TomL

    Although it appears he may get a 5-3 decision to overturn his conviction, it’s almost a shame he can’t just buy that fifth vote! [/end sarcasm]

  • Quilla

    Yes. Yes, he is.

    Pathetically.

  • Gary Harmer

    Time to get the hell out of this once great country…bon voyage!

  • marknc

    He had a very good chance of success. These are the same judges who voted in Citizen’s United. His problem is that Scalia died!

  • marknc

    “POS apparently raised by professional criminals with no moral compass” You mean he’s a model Republican

  • rwlorenz

    At the least we have a new standard for arrogance. We will see how many of the Justices buy the line that selling access is not bribery, it is free speech.

  • Quilla

    POS apparently raised by professional criminals with no moral compass.

    Sad how many elected officials are crooked and are being backed up by equally dishonest lawyers.

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