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Del. Ken Plum: Court of Public Opinion

by Karen Goff — July 7, 2016 at 11:30 am 11 Comments

Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is a commentary from Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously overturned the public corruption conviction of Virginia’s former governor, Robert F. McDonnell.

The action of the Court was not a surprise to many, if not most, legal experts who had viewed the instruction to the jury in the case as to what constitutes “official acts” as being so broad that they could cover most any action that a public official takes. At the same time, there is concern that the Court’s decision will make it much more difficult to prosecute public officials on corruption charges.

The case is not yet fully resolved. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Appeals Court to decide if there was sufficient evidence to hold a new trial or if the charges will be dismissed. In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling there is not likely to be a new trial, and the charges will be dropped.

The court of public opinion may offer a different verdict. Even in writing the decision of the total court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. stated that “there is no doubt that this case is distasteful, it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”

The legal arguments may be lost on many in the general public who watched and listened during the weeks of the trial of McDonnell and his wife taking $175,000 in gifts and loans from a rich businessman who clearly sought their favor. It may not be illegal, but it clearly is “tawdry” as the Chief Justice stated and is for many inappropriate, sleazy, distasteful and beneath the expectations of his office.

The real damage to holding public officials accountable would come if the ruling results in prosecutors being unwilling to bring charges against those who are clearly involved in corruption. The court of public opinion can make its verdict known only to the degree that corrupt actions on the part of elected officials are made known.

The charges against McDonnell resulted in a multi-year effort on the part of the General Assembly to rewrite the state’s ethics laws. That task must be continued to ensure that elected officials and the public understand the rules of ethical behavior and that breaches of the rules are prosecuted.

The task is complicated, particularly for part-time legislators who spend most of their year in their home districts with numerous interactions with constituents. Legitimate constituent services must not be confused with payback. Nor should social interchanges with constituents be somehow discouraged.

Former Governor McDonnell has not escaped scrutiny or damage to his reputation. The court of public opinion will see to that as it should. As the Supreme Court’s verdict in his case shows, however, the lines have not been delineated with enough detail. Stronger and clearer ethical laws must be written and vigorously enforced.

  • Scott H

    Wow. Mr Plum has actually written a cogent, non-partisan opinion on something. Call me astounded!! Can’t wait for his assessment of the Hillary Clinton email case and Clinton Foundation bribery/corruption scandal.

  • Longtime Democrat

    According to what I know and heard the conviction of our Governor was purely based on political motivations, unsure why the fed decided to throw so much money at this. According to Virginia laws the Governor did nothing wrong. Further, the media was tasked to fully indict and judge these individuals before the case even handled in the courts.
    I honestly think the federal government has more important work to do. More laws do not necessarily mean they will be enforced (impartially) or that they even make sense.
    Respectfully, I disagree.

  • Ming the Merciless

    The real damage to holding public officials accountable would come if
    the ruling results in prosecutors being unwilling to bring charges
    against those who are clearly involved in corruption.

    “IF”? We’re already there. Paging Director Comey…

    • Mike M

      “There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that.”

  • Mike M

    Ken, the proof is in the results of action. I doubt very much the Legislature is “up to the task” of tightening the rules effectively, and for two reasons:
    1) Permissible corruption is sweet!
    2) Writing such legislation is hard, and well . . . the Legislature isn’t good at hard things.
    If I am wrong, I am willing to bet you will have nothing material to do with the success. I base that on your completely ineffective track record of writing significant legislation.

    • 4 warned 4 armed

      Spare your breath to cool your porridge.

      • Mike M

        And if I refuse? (Bear in mind I have no porridge.)

    • Virginia Harlow

      As was the Delay prosecution a while back. We need appellate courts that will throw out obviously political prosecutions earlier in the process. Legislators don’t want to limit what they can do. True.

  • Reston Realist

    Ken, your timing of this article is pretty ironic… Perhaps you and and Gerry Connolly should review your statements and compare notes before going public.

    • Greg

      Imagine that!

  • UStifosi .

    Ken is just jealous. None of his supporters have anything close to $175,000 to throw his way.

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