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In Light of McDonnell Case, Some Virginia Lawmakers Want A Stricter Federal Bribery Statute

Now that prosecutors have dropped bribery charges against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling for tightening the federal bribery statute.

Many lawmakers were surprised when the Supreme Court unanimously told prosecutors they overreached in charging McDonnell and his wife with bribery for taking tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, including a Rolex and designer clothes. But lawmakers were more surprised when prosecutors dropped all of the charges. Northern Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly says it’s obvious the former governor abused power.

“I do not approve of the actions of Governor McDonnell or his wife, nor do I view him as a victim, and I believe that he brought dishonor on the state.”

That said, Connolly adds.

“I actually agree with the Supreme Court ruling that the risk of the prosecution’s case is that you criminalize normal governance by political officials and I think the statue needs more clarity and direction.”

But Connolly and others calling for reform say tweaking the federal bribery statute is easier said than done.

“When you go down the road of that level of specificity – a watch yes, a Rolex, no – I just think you’re asking for trouble, and I don’t think prosecutors would find that helpful. They also need discretion but not as much discretion as they exercised because the Supreme Court unanimously found that unacceptable.”

Even some supporters of McDonnell, like Virginia Republican Dave Brat, say Congress should review the bribery law.

“In this case I think it turned out right but you had to put our governor through a wrenching process so that’s unfortunate but yeah it’s probably right to go back and clean it up regardless so it doesn’t happen again.”

Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott is a lawyer. He says the justices got it right.

“The Court ruled that just setting up a meeting was a courtesy, not an official act. If you disallowed setting up meetings that would mean that no member could meet with a contributor. That would be a real change in practice.”

But Scott faults lawmakers in Richmond for failing to tighten the ethics laws that govern them.

“The General Assembly needs to take stronger action to make sure that the gift limit is significantly restricted. Gov. McAuliffe has done that on an administrative basis for administration employees, but the legislators really need to reduce the level for legal gifts, you really don’t need to take any gifts.”   

Virginia Democrat Don Beyer says he’s glad the McDonnell’s no longer have the weight of the court case hanging over them.

“Well I’m pleased. I think he’s suffered enough – we don’t want to justify the behavior which is certainly unseemly and tawdry – but it was never a quo in the quid pro quo. What he took looked really bad, but there was never an effective case that he did anything inappropriate for this guy to give him all the money and rides and boathouse and stuff.”

But Beyer says the case should serve as a warning to politicians everywhere.

“You want as a public servant to always be above reproach, as the state department of ethics told me years ago, ‘If you have to ask the question whether it’s ethical or not, then that’s the answer itself.’”

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