On January 6th, 2015, a judge will sentence former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife; the recommended prison term is at least ten years. Earlier this year, McDonnell was convicted of a number of felonies related to corruption of his office and betrayal of public trust.
However, lately some people have suggested, including the McDonnell attorneys, that his time served should be vastly reduced, instead being forced to perform a certain number of community service hours. Although I think we ought to explore alternative sentencing for a variety of non-violent crimes, it should never be treated like some kind of political perk, doled out to the rich, famous, or well-connected.
To offer some perspective, let me tell you the story of another Virginia politician who found himself in similar legal trouble. Back during the 2009 election cycle, Delegate Phil Hamilton (R-Newport News) was accused of selling his office for personal gain. The charge stemmed from a bill which created a new position at Old Dominion University, a position that was filled by Hamilton.
Many GOP leaders were quick to condemn Hamilton. Bob McDonnell, who was then Virginia’s Attorney General, said, “Elected officials must keep the highest ethical standards in order to maintain the public trust. From what I have seen of published news accounts containing emails and admissions, it appears that Delegate Hamilton has violated the public trust. Based on this public information it would be in the best interests of his constituents for him to step down, but if he believes that the due process of a full inquiry by the House Ethics Advisory Panel will clear his name, he should have a full opportunity to present his case. Any such inquiry should be commenced immediately and conducted expeditiously.” Looking at it from a political perspective, at that time McDonnell was running for Governor of Virginia and the Hamilton situation could very well have had presented negative ramifications for his election chances.
When the story of Hamilton broke and before there was a trial, like McDonnell, the Republican Party of Virginia treated Hamilton like a leper, removing his name as a candidate from their website. Ken Cuccinelli was the only statewide leader to suggest that Hamilton ought to have his day in court before being hanged by mere public opinion.
In 2011, Phil Hamilton was convicted and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison. In the ensuing election cycle, the RPV used the news of Hamilton as a political tool, attacking Virginia Senator John Miller (D-Newport News) for supposedly engaging in the same behavior. They backed up and drove the bus over former Delegate Hamilton. Unless I’ve missed it, I haven’t seen them apply the same treatment to our former governor.
Shortly after his conviction, I spoke to a member of the House of Delegates about the Hamilton situation. I was told that Delegate Hamilton didn’t try to hide his actions because he didn’t think he did anything wrong. Furthermore, other members of the General Assembly had done and continued to engage in the same activities that ended up placing Hamilton in prison. As one example, I was informed that Virginia Senator Tommy Norment (R-James City County) supposedly acted very similarly to Hamilton regarding his employment with the College of William and Mary.
Now, I didn’t serve on the jury for Delegate Hamilton nor had any hand in his sentencing. It would be highly improper of me to do so given his status as my former boss. Although I can say that I never saw Hamilton engage in any unethical or illegal behavior and he treated me fairly well when I was in his employ, I wouldn’t argue that due to this personal connection he should be let off the hook. Being convicted of bribery and extortion ought to merit considerable punishment and restitution regardless of how nice or evil the person otherwise is. We must hold our elected officials to some kind of standard and this same standard ought to apply to Bob McDonnell too. Virginia badly needs to improve its laws on political ethics.
I spoke to Bob McDonnell a number of times while he was in office and I don’t have any personal grievance with him (other than him joining the chorus line of condemning Hamilton before he was tried and convicted and apparently not seeing the hypocrisy in engaging in the same bad behavior he repudiated Hamilton for doing). However, we should not think better (or worse of him) in order to gain some sort of political advantage, due to his political party, or as our result of our relationship with him.
Given that the United States has over 2.2 million people incarcerated and has one of the highest prison population rates in the world, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, there is no doubt that our country is in desperate need of reform. But, to argue that Bob McDonnell should be treated much better than former Delegate Phil Hamilton downplays the seriousness of the crimes of which he has been convicted, is unfair favoritism, could encourage further political ethics violations, and would only end up making a further mockery of our legal system.