With the stunning conviction of former Virginia GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife on corruption charges, people are once again posing that age old question: Why do so many politicians get into trouble with the law?
The list of reasons comes as a shock because it’s so short. The mighty are laid low by the same three temptations, over and over.
There’s sex, of course, which can embarrass anofficeholder into early retirement. Congressman Anthony Wiener left Capitol Hill and lost his bid to be mayor of New York last year with his online torso selfies and salacious tweets. At least two of his former colleagues in Congress have been pilloried for their own peccadilloes since.
But while sex scandals may end or limit careers (at least in states outside Louisiana), they rarely lead to indictments, trials or jail terms. That kind of trouble happens when the politician’s downfall is denominated in dollars.
So it was with the McDonnells. They could have had whatever sort of social relationship either of them wanted with Richmond businessman Jonnie Williams; no one would have cared. But their acceptance of loans and gifts valued in six figures led prosecutors to believe Williams was getting something in return — access to the office and powers of the governor.
Prosecutors saw that as “obtaining property under color of official right” and depriving Virginia citizens of “their right to honest services.” And they made the jury see it that way too.
The McDonnells’ defense tried to change the subject and make the scandal about sex, more or less. They argued that Maureen McDonnell had a “crush” on Williams and that the state’s First Couple were not really a couple anymore. You could call it a wink-and-nudge sort of defense.
The implication was that, hey, this was embarrassing and all but, you know, not a crime. If the governor himself didn’t do anything wrong, well, no harm no foul. And on the stand, day after day, Bob McDonnell surely seemed to believe this.
But in the end, the jury did not. The jury saw the Rolex and the Oscar de la Renta dresses and the Cape Cod vacation trip and the $50,000 check that was said to be a loan. And that didn’t look like a bad marriage, it looked like real money.
It has been said that smart thieves know better than to ever steal anything small. And by that same token, politicians are more likely to be nailed for petty chiseling than for fleecing the federal treasury for billions in pork barrel projects back home.
Stealing money or valuable items for personal use on a human scale is the sort of offense ordinary people can calibrate, understand and resent.
That’s what happened to legendary Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski a few years back. The longtime Chicago congressman lost his committee, then his seat and ultimately his freedom because of an investigation that began with his misuse of the House post office (where he got free stamps) and his misappropriation of commemorative chairs. Seriously.
Rostenkowski served years in a federal prison, as did another House member, former Navy aviator Randy “Duke” Cunningham. The Dukester wrote out a price list on a restaurant napkin, detailing what he charged for various favors he could do for defense contractors.
The third and final category of corruption at these levels of power has to do with power itself. While not as common as financial perfidy, these abuses are the most likely to make history.
It was one kind of crime when former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards sought payoffs for licenses to operate casinos in his state. Edwards, long a colorful rogue, finally went to prison for this. (Out now, he is making a quixotic bid for redemption by running for Congress.)
But it was an offense of another order when Edwards’ infamous predecessor, Huey “Kingfish” Long, usurped the powers of the legislative and judicial branches and became a species of potentate. It’s hard to know where Long’s ambitions might have led had he not been assassinated in 1935.
It has also been observed that Richard Nixon, the only president ever forced to resign, abused his office not to enrich himself but to ensure his re-election and take revenge on political opponents.
Ben Bagdikian, the journalist and author whose years as a Washington Post editor included the Watergate ordeal, once drew this distinction between those events and more run-of-the-mill scandals.
“Politicians who get in trouble are typically using their office to get money; Nixon was using his power to get more power, and that’s fascism.”