It's an axiom as old as time: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is the latest politician to fall victim to this phenomenon. On Tuesday, McDonnell formally apologized for his role in an ethics scandal in which he may have broken Virginia law by failing to disclose gifts he received.
Recently, as revealed by reporters at the Washington Post, McDonnell indirectly received at least $150,000 in gifts from a wealthy benefactor, constituent, and CEO. McDonnell's decision to apologize is his latest gambit to downplay the issue as questions of whether he should be allowed to serve the remaining six months of his term dominate conversations.
McDonnell also reported that he had repaid over $120,000 in what he described as "loans" from the benefactor to his family business. These "loans" to his family business from a wealthy CEO and constituent were previously unreported, but have been repaid with interest from McDonnell's family business and family members. This is not the first time the CEO, Jonnie Williams Sr., has found himself in the spotlight, as a pending lawsuit from shareholders in his company continues to take shape.
While McDonnell has publicly stated that he has broken no laws, the thought is hardly something to put observers at ease, since Virginia has some of the loosest ethics regulations in the entire nation. Indeed, the state allows officeholders to accept any gift — as long as it is reported if in excess of $50.
Yes, read that again — officeholders can accept any gift in excess of $50, as long as it's reported. In Virginia it is considered completely ethical for a wealthy CEO to drop buckets of cash on an official, as long as the official reports it.
McDonnell's benefactor seems to have found a clever loophole, as the law only requires donations to officeholders to be reported. This reporting would, of course, exclude immediate family, such as the CEO's "gift" to McDonnell's daughter of a cool $15,000, or a "gift" to McDonnell's wife of a $15,000 shopping spree at Bergdorf's, or the $6,500 Rolex the CEO gave to McDonnell's wife so that she could give it to the Governor herself. It also excludes money given to businesses, such as the $120,000 in "loans" McDonnell had failed to disclose, until they were just made public.
While technically legal, the revelations are bound to shadow McDonnell throughout the remaining six months of his term. As of yet, allegations haven't emerged that McDonnell sought legislation on behalf of his benefactor. However, he was willing to grease the wheels a bit and get him into meetings with high-level state officials to pitch his product.
There may not be a clear path to redemption for Governor McDonnell, but the state of Virginia has an opportunity to act. If citizens of Virginia can recognize the threat that lies before them, hopefully they can be spurred to enact stricter ethics requirements.