Poor Haley Barbour. The former Reagan White House political director, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, former two-term governor of Mississippi, and now one of Washington’s premier lobbyists, just doesn’t understand how the rules work anymore.
This political naif, who is one of D.C.’s top ten registered lobbyists with clients such as Caesars Entertainment, Chevron, and Toyota, is desperate for the Supreme Court to give him “clear legal guidance on how to interact with public officials” lest he run afoul of anti-corruption laws.
You see, former Virginia GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell’s conviction under federal corruption and extortion laws has confused him. So Barbour and other “Public Policy Advocates and Business Leaders”—a group that includes other Republican political babes-in-the-woods such as former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer—want the Supreme Court to hear McDonnell’s appeal because they’re afraid his conviction “casts a cloud on political courtesies.”
Uh oh. What kind of quo can be given for quid?
Last month, McDonnell and Barbour got their wish. The Supreme Court will hear the case. Some have speculated that the death of Antonin Scalia is bad news for McDonnell, because the late Justice would have been receptive to the former Virginia governor’s contention that he did nothing more than grant a few innocent favors for a friend. (If the Supreme Court splits 4–4, then the Fourth Circuit’s decision unanimously upholding McDonnell’s conviction will stand.)
It’s worth reviewing what landed McDonnell in hot water in the first place, and whether one really needs an electron microscope to determine what is political corruption.
It all started with a complimentary corporate plane ride.
Back when he was governor, McDonnell had to fly to California and back for a political event. Businessman Jonnie Williams offered up his corporate jet. On the way back, Williams hopped on board and began talking about his company’s new drug, Anatabloc, an anti-inflammatory.
Williams wanted the FDA to classify the product as a pharmaceutical, but to do that he would need studies, lots of studies. Expensive studies. Hey, why not get the state of Virginia to conduct them?
Williams made his pitch on the plane. The Governor then helped Williams by referring him to the Virginia Secretary of Health. And then not much happened.
But about six months later, in the spring of 2011, McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, offered to seat Williams next to the Governor at a political event. Good chance after a lull to pitch again, right? But beforehand, she needed a Manhattan shopping spree. Tab: $20,000.
With an Oscar de la Renta jacket and Vuitton purse procured, things started picking up for Williams, including a private dinner at the Governor’s Mansion with the McDonnells. Three days later, Williams agreed to the McDonnells’ request for a $65,000 loan. ($50,000 was to pay high-interest loans and credit card debt; $15,000 was to pay for their daughter’s wedding reception.)
Mrs. McDonnell took the lead. “The Governor says it’s ok for me to help you,” she told Williams. But the Governor pitched in too. A few days after the loan was made, the Governor brought up Anatabloc to his Secretary of Health, William Hazel. He then forwarded information about the supplement to Hazel, and also forwarded a letter from Williams outlining the types of clinical trials he needed. McDonnell also told Hazel to arrange a meeting with Williams.
Meanwhile, the Governor and Mrs. McDonnell hosted an Anatabloc product launch party at the historic Virginia Governor’s Mansion with a guest list set by Williams and his company.
All of these activities, and more, were interspersed with regular gifts to the McDonnells from Williams. Rounds of golf with tabs as high as $2,400. Use of Williams’ multi-million-dollar vacation home, boat rental and Ferrari included. A $6,000 custom-engraved Rolex for the governor.
By the end of 2011, the first round of Williams’ largesse had produced very little. Another round of giving commenced. This time the loans or monetary gifts totaled $80,000. Plus, Williams threw in more vacations, golf rounds, and four figure dinners.
All this was closely tied to activities by the McDonnells. In one case, the Governor emailed his staff about Anatabloc just minutes after talking to Williams about his request for a loan. In another, the McDonnells insisted that Williams attend a reception for Virginia healthcare leaders, over the objection of the state employees who arranged the event. And in yet another, the Governor attended a meeting about the state’s employee health care plan, pulled out at bottle of Anatabloc and said he thought it would be good for state employees.
Reading all of this, the quid is pretty clear. All told, Williams loaned the McDonnells $145,000 and gave them almost $50,000 in gifts. (All those gifts and loans were legal under Virginia law). The issue now before the Court, and the one that seems to have so flummoxed Barbour et al, is what was the quo, bearing in mind that federal corruption and extortion laws require “official acts.”
To hear McDonnell’s side of the story in his cert petition, his individually identifiable acts in this whole unseemly tale were mild. All he did, he protests, was five measly things: a few meetings, a few emails. Just “routine political courtesies.” Nothing to look at here folks.
But the jury got to look at all the facts and all the acts undertaken by the McDonnells and Williams. And what they saw was a constant give and take of money for favors—favors that only had meaning and value to Williams because of the Governor’s power. Moreover, it is abundantly evident that the end goal of the scheme between Virginia’s first family and Williams was a series of government-sponsored studies, and that, my friends, is an official act.
As the law holds, and as the Solicitor General’s office pointed out in its brief opposing cert, “the government only had to establish that petitioner’s agreement with Williams carried `an expectation that some type of official action would be taken.’”
So let me help poor Haley Barbour with some good advice while he awaits the Court’s guidance. If you find yourself in the middle of a multi-year, six-figure loans, gifts, and perks exchange with a politician that involves Ferraris, Rolexes, and de la Renta jackets in pursuit of a specific government action: stop. Actually, stop even if no Ferraris, Rolexes, or designer clothes are involved. In the meantime, feel free to ask the White House for tickets to the Easter egg roll.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
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