Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Republican Party of Virginia's impending ethics crisis

Less than a month ago, just a week before Christmas, senior Justice Department officials decided to delay a decision to indict then Governor Bob McDonnell. Among the arguments put forward by McDonnell's attorneys, the most persuasive was that an indictment coming just a week before Christmas would disrupt the process of transitioning from the McDonnell administration to the incoming McAuliffe administration.

I, for one, agreed with this reasoning. On December 18, 2013--when the story of McDonnell's impending indictment broke--Bob McDonnell had a scant three-and-half weeks left in office. Did it really make sense to indict McDonnell a week before Christmas, humiliate him, and perhaps force him to resign? Of course not. The idea of forcing Bob McDonnell out to make way for a two- or three week long Bill Bolling administration made no sense. Better by far to wait a few weeks and let McDonnell depart with whatever grace he could manage, ensuring a smooth transition to the new McAuliffe administration.

But the transition is complete: Terry McAuliffe is Governor of Virginia--and Bob McDonnell is a former Governor of Virginia. What now?

Less than a month ago, federal prosecutors were ready to bring an indictment against Bob McDonnell; how likely is it that they will simply drop the indictment without further action? In this writer's opinion, it is highly unlikely federal prosecutors will drop their case against McDonnell without further action. McDonnell's attorneys were able to argue that an indictment in August 2013 would interfere with Virginia's elections in November 2013 and they were able to argue that an indictment in December 2013 would interfere with Virginia's transition in January 2014, but McDonnell's attorneys are fresh out of arguments for further delay; indictments for violations of the Hobbs Act cannot be too far down the road for Bob and Maureen McDonnell.

Earlier today, newly sworn in Attorney General Mark Herring terminated the contracts of the law firms hired by then Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to represent Bob and Maureen McDonnell in their scandal. Cuccinelli had to hire the outside firms because of his own conflict of interest with Star Scientific. These firms have billed Virginia's taxpayers over $780,000 so far to defend the McDonnells against prosecution for their peculations--all because Cuccinelli couldn't resist the opportunity to extort $4,500 in "gifts" from Jonnie Williams and Star Scientific.

Where does that leave the Republican Party of Virginia?

The Republican Party of Virginia is not well positioned to cope with a major ethics scandal--particularly a scandal with its roots in the actions of a Republican Governor, a Republican First Lady, and a Republican Attorney General. For if Bob and Maureen McDonnell are guilty of violations of the Hobbs Act, Ken Cuccinelli is just as guilty for the "gifts" he solicited from Jonnie Williams when Star Scientific had major tax litigation pending before Cuccinelli's office. Cuccinelli's actions were even more nakedly extortionate than those of the McDonnells.

I don't know of a single person who is enthusiastic about the ethics legislation proposed in this year's General Assembly. The bill has been described as "bi-partisan," but the lop-sided Republican majority in the House of Delegates means that this bill is basically what the Republicans were willing to do. If House Republicans wanted real ethics reforms, they could pass them through the House without a single Democratic vote. The fact that they have instead put forward the anemic HB15 suggests that Virginia's Republicans aren't really serious about ethics reforms.

It will be interesting to see how the McDonnell ethics scandal and prosecutions will play out in the context of House Republicans' failure to act on ethics reform.

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