Skip Navigation

Scandal Built for Two

Brennan Center Fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy looks at the pay-to-play scandal surrounding the First Family of Virginia and other political power couples who have pushed the same ethical envelope.

September 9, 2013

The pay-to-play scandal surrounding the First Family of Virginia appears to be heating up by the day with revelations they accepted various gifts from a Virginia business. Like so many powerful couples, when one goes down, the other comes tumbling after.

Maureen McDonnell, the First Lady of Virginia, may want to brush up on the history of what happened to the First Husband of the Governor of Kentucky, Dr. William Collins. He went to jail in 1993 for influence peddling. The influence Dr. Collins sold was of his wife, Governor Martha Layne Collins.

The details of Ms. McDonnell’s scandal, which are swamping her husband’s governorship in Virginia, involve lots of gifts and money totaling around $145,000 from the CEO of a company called Star Scientific, Jonnie Williams.  A “technology-oriented company,” Star Scientific, according to The Economist, is a “money-losing tobacco company turned dietary-supplement manufacturer.” 

Star Scientific gave $28,584 to Governor McDonnell’s electoral campaign. This campaign contribution is perfectly legal under Virginia’s notoriously lax campaign finance laws, though it could still come into play under federal bribery laws if the Governor promised something in return for the contribution.

In the McDonnells’ case, the gift garnering the most media attention is an engraved Rolex watch that Ms. McDonnell gave to her husband, but which was paid for by the CEO.

This all sounds eerily similar to what brought down Dr. Collins in Kentucky, who gave his wife, the Governor, a grand piano complete with a family crest. The only problem was Dr. Collins didn’t pay for the grand piano. Rather bond underwriters doing business with the state of Kentucky ponied up the cash for the lavish gift. Governor Collins later gave the piano to a university.

Apparently Governor McDonnell has given the infamous Rolex back. In fact he has spent the summer giving things back to CEO Jonnie Williams. He’s paid back business loans and given back money that the CEO provided to pay for two of the Governor’s daughters’ weddings. 

But the scandal continues with the latest stinging revelation that the First Lady of Virginia had bought stock in Star Scientific twice while arranging for an event touting its products at the Virginia Governor’s Mansion and pushing the products at a Florida event. Mr. Williams has, according to the press reports, turned state’s evidence. The Governor is claiming he didn’t know his family owned the Star Scientific stock.   

Meanwhile Governor McDonnell and his wife now have separate criminal defense attorneys. They may both need them. When married couples get in trouble for alleged corruption, usually both have benefited. But that doesn’t mean both are facing jail time.

We don’t know for sure what charges the DOJ is considering, if any. If there is evidence of quid pro quo, both could be facing charges of violating the Hobbs Act. If the charge is against the Governor alone, the charge could be committing honest services fraud, which occurs when a public official deprives citizens of their right to the official’s honest service by accepting bribes or self-dealing. 

Just think of Connecticut Governor Rowland and his wife Patti. He accepted gifts from state contractors who also gave political contributions to his campaign. These gifts included family vacations that she attended, as well as an infamous hot tub. Ms. Rowland was subpoenaed in state and federal inquiries into Governor Rowland’s potential impeachment and near federal indictment. But he short-circuited both processes by resigning and reaching a plea deal with federal prosecutors before he was indicted. He admitted to one federal criminal charge of corruption by conspiring to defraud Connecticut “citizens of the intangible right to the honest services of its Governor,” and defrauding the I.R.S. of tax revenue by failing to report gratuities. He served a little under a year in jail. In the end, Ms. Rowland was not charged.

In the case of Kentucky’s First Family, despite the evidence that Governor Collins benefited from $1.7 million in kickbacks, federal charges were only filed against her husband. Count I of the indictment charged Dr. Collins with engaging in a conspiracy to extort money in the form of political contributions and other payments in exchange for the opportunity to do business with Kentucky, in violation of the Hobbs Act. Kentucky, like Virginia, does not allow incumbent governors to run for re-election. So by the time Dr. Collin’s legal troubles came to a head in 1992, his wife was already out of power, having served as Governor from 1983 to 1987. She testified in his defense claiming he had no influence over Kentucky policy when she was Governor. He was found guilty in a jury trial and was sentenced to over 5 years in jail.

On the other hand, it is very well possible that if both parties are culpable in criminal behavior, then they can end up with his and hers jail cells. This just happened to Congressman and Ms. Jesse Jackson Jr. The Jackson case was somewhat unique as both of them were elected officials and both apparently had the bad habit of dipping into campaign funds as if they were personal piggy banks. He has to forfeit $750,000. She has been ordered to pay $22,000 in restitution. Consequently, the two have to stagger their respective jail terms so that one parent is home for their children while the other is in prison over the next three and half years. 

The election for Governor McDonnell’s replacement is well under way. He may be out of office before any indictments are filed. And it could be Ms. McDonnell, like Dr. Collins, who is the one in legal hot water instead of the ex-Governor. But once again, when a power couple pushes the ethical envelope, the resulting scandal is like a cheesy tandem bicycle: built for two.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a Brennan Center Fellow and an Assistant Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law. She is the author of Safeguarding Markets from Pernicious Pay to Play: A Model Explaining Why the SEC Regulates Money in Politics.

(Photo: Flickr/State Library of New South Wales)