Gov. Bob McDonnell Shows That There's More Than Just 'Quid Pro Quo' Corruption

Matt Berman

It wasn't long ago that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was everywhere. He was a Sunday news-show staple in his former role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association; he got to say "you did build that" at the 2012 Republican National Convention; he was on Mitt Romney's VP short list; and he was viewed as a strong contender for the presidency in 2016.

But now? He'll be lucky if he gets to serve out the final months of his term as governor unscathed.

The Washington Post's Rosalind Helderman dropped yet another bombshell on Tuesday night, reporting that McDonnell's corporation and his family have accepted $145,000 in financial assistance from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a political donor and the chief executive of the dietary supplement company Star Scientific. As CQ Roll Call's Steven Dennis pointed out on Twitter, that's far more money than convicted former Rep. William Jefferson had been keeping in his freezer

The money came in a variety of ways. Williams famously paid $15,000 for the catering at McDonnell's daughter's wedding in June 2011. He bought a $6,500 Rolex that August that McDonnell's wife, Maureen, wanted to give to her husband as a gift. He covered airfare expenses for McDonnell to attend an NCAA Final Four game in April 2011. And, as the latest report shows, a corporation McDonnell and his sister owned received $70,000 from Williams last year, in addition to a $50,000 check that was given to Maureen McDonnell in 2011.

Under Virginia law, just accepting these gifts is OK. There is no limit to the value of gifts that elected officials in the state can accept. They do, however, have to disclose annually any gifts worth more than $50, although gifts to family members are exempt. Gov. McDonnell is currently under federal investigation over whether he or his family helped Star Scientific in exchange for financial assistance. He is also under state investigation for his lack of disclosures.

Right now, though, it's impossible to say that there was an explicit "this for that" exchange that's central to conventional political corruption. Yes, Maureen McDonnell did speak to doctors and investors about the benefits of Star Scientific's Anatabloc supplement, and the product was launched in 2011 at the Virginia Governor's Mansion. Williams also was able to pitch the product as a cost-cutting boon to a top official from the Virginia Health and Human Resources Department.

But, so far at least, there's no evidence that any gifts or financial assistance was explicitly given by Williams in exchange for access or assistance for Anatabloc and Star Scientific. Without that, there's no obvious, quid pro quo political corruption. But in an age of massive campaigns and nonstop fundraising, that's not the only kind of corruption there can be.

Harvard's Lawrence Lessig gets at this with his idea of the "gift economy" in his book, Republic, Lost. Lessig defines a "gift economy" like this:

A gift economy is a series of exchanges between two or more souls who never pretend to equate one exchange to another, but who also don't pretend that reciprocating is unimportant—an economy in the sense that it marks repeated interactions over time, but a gift economy in the sense that it doesn't liquidate the relationships in terms of cash. Indeed, relationships, not cash, are the currency within these economies.

While in a quid pro quo situation, "the guilty government official must intend to pay for the contribution made," a "gift economy" is much more subtle. And prevalent. Here's an obvious, nonpolitical illustration. Lessig again:

I give you a birthday present. It is a good present not so much because it is expensive, but because it expresses well my understanding of you. In that gift, I expect something in return. I would be insulted if on my birthday, you gave me a cash voucher equivalent to the value of the gift I gave you, or even two times the amount I gave you.

As Lessig writes, the gift economy can lead to dependency corruption, where even though there is no obvious ill will, dependency on a donor can lead to the deterioration of objectivity when it comes to examining the interests that that donor represents.

The McDonnell situation doesn't necessarily fit this gift-economy mold perfectly. As Lessig pictures it, the political gift economy is largely a product of campaign fundraising. With McDonnell, in some cases, direct cash was given by Williams. But with "gifts" like the Rolex, the food catering, and the Final Four airfare, some of this is at play.

Is there proof that Williams, in giving those gifts, demanded reciprication for his company? No. At least not yet. But that doesn't mean that McDonnell and his family weren't inclined to look at Williams and Star Scientific more favorably because of the financial assistance they were given.

Is this corruption, even without the intent of quid pro quo? Lessig would likely say yes:

The most significant and powerful forms of coruption today are precisely those that thrive without depending upon quid pro quos for their effectiveness.

In McDonnell's situation, with thousands of dollars in goods and services in question, you can make the case that dependency is involved. That's not something, of course, that McDonnell can be accused of by federal or state prosecutors. But it is something that will reflect on his legacy as governor, and could possibly have led to more overt and actionable problems.