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The Truth Laid Bare

As wacky as they were, the trials of Dinesh D’Souza and Bob McDonnell showed the fundamentals of money in politics.

October 6, 2014

Quick: You are most likely

A. A Florida drug dealer;

B. Ron Popeil;

C. The governor or first lady of Virginia; or

D. A public intellectual and best selling author

if you

Dress head to toe (shoes, coat, purse) in Louis Vuitton.

Cruise around in a Ferrari and flash your Rolex.

Take your married (not to you) fiancé on out of town trips while your own wife (still married to you) stays at home minding the kids.

Star in an infomercial pitching a flip up Christmas tree.

If you answered Miami drug dealer or Ron Popeil to any of these questions, you are wrong.

Ah. September. A heavenly month. It brings us cooler nights, the last of the tomato harvest, and fall TV premieres. (NCIS: New Orleans – who knew?)

This year it also brought a bumper crop of dysfunctional personalities at play in campaign finance land as the sagas of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and public intellectual Dinesh D’Souza came to a close. McDonnell was found guilty of defrauding Virginians of his honest services. He awaits sentencing. D’Souza was spared a stint in the big house and sentenced to eight months confinement in a halfway house plus a fine for his illegal donations to a Senate candidate.

It would be easy to dismiss their stories as extreme, featuring a set of actors whose cluster of personality traits warrant a special page in the DSM.

Their trials and tribulations were mostly played out as soap operas in the press. After all D’Souza and McDonnell’s behavior bordered on farcically corrupt. Their crimes read as ones of personality rather ones that truly injured the body politic.

But D’Souza and McDonnell—a money giver and a money taker—laid bare some of the most basic dynamics of money in politics.

D’Souza was indicted at the beginning of this year for making use of straw donors to illegally funnel $20,000 to Wendy Long, a Senate candidate from New York running against incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand. D’Souza’s scheme was straightforward as these things go. He recruited his fiancé-mistress and her husband each to give Long $10,000. Then he reimbursed them.

Straw donor cases are not unusual. In recent years, the Department of Justice has prosecuted everyone from lawyers, hotel magnates, real estate developers, and liquor distributors in venues from California to Florida, Delaware to New York.

Almost all reveal two major themes. First, the donor is convinced that the only way to get a politician to listen is to give them money. Without campaign contributions, “nobody will even talk to you. . . . That’s the only way to buy them, get into the system. . . . What, what else is there? That’s the only thing” hotel magnate Sant Singh Chatwal told an associate of his. Chatwal pled guilty to using straw donors in April of this year.

Second, these donors are convinced that the campaign laws and limits are annoyances, mere paperwork requirements. D’Souza seems to have viewed the law as an obstacle course. “I could have given to a PAC—there are ten ways to do it. But I took a shortcut,” he told a New Republic reporter.

Why did D’Souza take this detour into felony-land? “I said, look, I need to help this woman.” And there’s the rub. Donors and politicians enter into a symbiotic and often desperate relationship. There’s a dysfunctional push-pull between the two. Candidate Long needed more money badly and let D’Souza know. (By the way, candidates always need more money). He felt obliged, compelled to help her. To be sure, his motives seem to have been more in personal friendship than quid pro quo. But, then, imagine how strong the appeal must seem when the political candidate has a measure of power over your ability to make a living.

And that’s something ex-governor McDonnell seems to have toyed with in his quest for money from Virginia businessman Jonnie R. Williams, Sr. McDonnell and his wife were convicted of in effect selling his services as governor to Williams for more than $150,000 in loans and goods. The fancy dinners, the golf trips, the shopping sprees at Bergdorfs, the vacations on Cape Cod.

If donors believe that money is the only way to obtain influence and are desperate to prove to politicians that they can run the donor obstacle course, then many politicians are just as eager to suggest how much they can help or hurt.

They dangle the quo.

McDonnell and his wife tried to suggest their power without exercising it. They seemed to know that if they went too far it really would be a blatant quid pro quo. So they never arranged for state money to go to Williams’ company. They didn’t appoint people to posts for him. They made some inquiring phone calls, included Williams in some events, helped arrange meetings, lent their prestige to Williams.

How many politicians dance this dance? Some commentators seem to think all of them do it all of the time. A Washington Post columnist called what the McDonnell’s did “politics as usual. . .minimal personal favors and courtesies.” A leading campaign finance attorney noted that the McDonnell case implicates  “all the informal things” a politician does.

A jury thought the McDonnell’s behavior went over the edge. We’ll see how their appeal plays out in any event.

Both D’Souza and McDonnell demonstrated only the barest measure of control over their towering egos and not even a passing acquaintance with the law. But sometimes even the most extreme personalities pull aside the curtain on very human truths.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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(Photo: AP)