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SCOTUS Splits Hairs on Abuse of Power

Updated on June 28, 2016

While most observers focused on the Supreme Court decision regarding Texas abortion law, another precedent-setting decision involving political corruption and ethics was handed down. The court in a somewhat rare 8-0 decision vacated the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor, Bob McDonnell.

According to CNN, the legal issue at hand was “what constitutes the scope of ‘official action’ under federal corruption law." McDonnell’s attorneys argued that the jury had received improper instructions and the court imagined that it was possible McDonnell was convicted for activities that did not rise to the level of “official action” as defined in the law.

McDonnell and his wife received approximately $175,000 and a Rolex watch from a businessman trying to gain support from the state for approval of a dietary supplement by the Food and Drug Administration. Lawyers disputed the government’s claims by saying McDonnell took no official action. Instead, McDonnell only extend common political courtesies. The Governor asked questions, arranged meetings and attended events, but according to his attorneys did not exercise his governmental powers.

As to the letter of the law, SCOTUS probably got it right. Who am I to question? But when it comes to common sense the decision employs none. Official action or power is inherent in the office. While McDonnell’s legal team calls his deeds “courtesies,” we are expected to believe that any citizen who requested such courtesies would have received them. If that’s not the case (and it’s not) then McDonnell used his intrinsic power in exchange for gifts.

Did Bob McDonnell's political courtesies constitute a crime?

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United States Supreme Court Building
United States Supreme Court Building | Source

When I held the title of “Commissioner,” I could convene a meeting that included mayors, legislators, philanthropists, business leaders and policymakers with little or no questions asked. This same cadre of decision-makers would meet with constituents or persons with business interests simply because I requested it. For the record, I never accepted a gift or favor for arranging those meetings. The harsh reality is that once I no longer served in office, phone calls were not returned, meetings were more difficult to schedule and “courtesies” definitely could not be extended. By holding the office, I could introduce policy that could help or hurt various constituencies, so they came when I called and attempted to be as accommodating as they could.

If this is true for a County Commissioner from Memphis, then certainly the Governor of a state who can veto legislation, sign executive orders or introduce and advocate for a legislative agenda would yield far more power that is built-in and fundamental to the office itself.

  • McDonnell received $175,000 in gifts, including a Rolex watch
  • Businessman wanted state's support for FDA approval of a dietary supplement
  • Court found jury received improper instruction and that McDonnell's action may not have been "official action" as defined by the law


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    • MikeCarpenter1 profile image

      Mike Carpenter 21 months ago from Memphis, Tennessee

      lions44 I shared the same paranoia during my public service. I landed on the Commission post Tennessee Waltz and Operation: Mainstreet Sweeper which nabbed elected at the state and local levels for bribery. As a result, new tougher ethics rules were put in place. Most of the time, I would not meet with a constituent alone. I wanted a witness. My larger point in is that any action taken by an elected on behalf of a citizen is "official" because the power is in the office and the title, so "courtesies" had intended influence while maybe not technically illegal. McDonnell may have complied with the letter of the law, but scrapped the intent. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 21 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Although I agree it was highly unethical, prosecuting him did seem a bit of an overreach and highly political; no surprise when it comes to the Feds. When I worked in government, I was paranoid about appearances. I wouldn't even accept a bagel from a staffer at the entity. So I understand the caution from those involved. But federal prosecutors should be going after bigger crimes than McDonnell.

      Certainly there was a quid pro quo. He's sleazy, but that's the worst abuse of power they could find?

      Sharing everywhere.