Steinberg: U.S. Supreme Court leans toward legalizing corruption

SHARE Steinberg: U.S. Supreme Court leans toward legalizing corruption

Former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell leaves the U.S. Supreme Court on April 27, 2016. | Getty Images

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Things are a mess.

They sure feel like a mess, don’t they?

Chicago teeters on insolvency. Illinois hurtles toward its first anniversary of utter fiscal gridlock.

Nationally, the view is even more surreal, like some semi-obscene Dali painting come to life. This crude New York punchline has shanghaied the Republican Party. While the Democrats who aren’t still skipping happily toward Shangri-La behind Pied Piper Bernie Sanders, banging tambourines wrapped in ribbons, grimly assemble around scarred old campaigner Hillary Clinton, like yeomen clutching pointed staffs in a muddy field around Henry V, psyching themselves up to fight off the legions of bowl-haircut Middle American sexist idiocy for the next six solid months.

So I hate to point out another looming problem, one not on your radar yet. It won’t show up until June, maybe. But it bobbed to the surface of our national discourse last week before being flushed away by the next jaw-dropping set of bad news. Since you may have missed it, I feel compelled to pluck it out and hold it up, gingerly, between thumb and forefinger.

Bob McDonnell.

Name mean anything? Of course not. Don’t feel bad, it drew a blank with me too.


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Governor of Virginia. Former governor of Virginia. Convicted in 2014, along with his wife, Maureen, on his-and-hers corruption charges for accepting $170,000 worth of goodies in return for official favors. He got two years in prison.

But unlike our jailbird governor, Rod Blagojevich, McDonnell was not simply scraped off the public plate and into the clink. His appeal was accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments Wednesday, and seems as if it might be giving a sympathetic ear to the idea that our government works by letting powerful businessmen shower gifts on public officials and they, in return, 5jump through hoops. The trouble, some justices seemed to suggest, is in prosecuting anybody for it.

“It puts at risk behavior that is common,” observed Justice Stephen G. Breyer, which could also be said of laws against robbery.

McDonnell was convicted for accepting interest-free loans, luxury trips and items like a silver Rolex with “71st Governor of Virginia” engraved on the back. His wife got a $19,000 New York shopping spree plus $15,000 toward their daughter Cailin’s wedding. Not to forget $120,000 in campaign contributions, all paid for by Jonnie R. Williams Sr., CEO of a Virginia company, Star Scientific, makers of a dietary supplement called Anatabloc.

The company even paid for the dress Maureen McDonnell wore at her husband’s inauguration in January 2010.

While McDonnell hoovered up the goodies, he and his wife started pushing Anatabloc. Gov. McDonnell urged Secretary of Health and Human Services Bill Hazel to meet with Williams, and he did. McDonnell convened a gathering of Virginia doctors and health professionals and pitched Star Scientific.

McDonnell would pull packets of Anatabloc out of his pockets at official meetings and tell various state public health administrators how well it works, encouraging them to contact “the Anatabloc people.” Maureen McDonnell offered the executive mansion for an Anatabloc launch party. The governor attended the party. His wife also bought stock in the company.

McDonnell called such antics “routine” at his trial, and that is inarguable. Even with anti-corruption laws in place, the line between honey dripped on government officials and official action is already blurred into near-invisibility.

But if the high court sides with McDonnell, as they seem to be leaning, then the line will vanish. Corruption will be legal. The enormous wealth of corporate America will rain down on our public officials, while the law winks and smiles and nods.

Sorry to be the one to tell you. But the least we can do is notice what is happening.

On Wednesday, Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked McDonnell’s lawyer if, based on his arguments, it would be lawful for a public official to charge $1,000 to any constituent seeking a meeting to discuss an issue.

“Yes,” the lawyer replied.

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