Washington, D.C. — With today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in the McDonnell v. United States case, the Court missed an opportunity to take a strong stance against government corruption by narrowing the definition of “official action” and overturning former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R-VA) conviction on 11 counts of political corruption and honest services fraud. Liz Kennedy, Director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress, issued the following statement:
At a time of cratering trust in government—with 75 percent of Americans believing that corruption in government is widespread—the Supreme Court today redefined corruption as the American people know it. Public officials holding positions of public trust should not be free to accept cash and gifts—here, more than $175,000—in a corrupt bargain for special treatment to advance the business interests of a wealthy supporter. Americans consider this corrupt behavior, but this decision overturning Gov. McDonnell’s conviction puts the Court dangerously close to defending pay to play as a legitimate practice in American democracy. The Court’s formalistic theory of corruption of democracy articulated here and in Citizens United—which allows access and influence in government to be bought and sold—contributes in no small part to the deterioration of trust in government and democratic institutions. While the Court seems most concerned with overcriminalizing behavior, it fails to appreciate the substantive costs to the public of having elected officials driven by personal financial gain and the cost to democracy of confirming the public’s worst beliefs that government is being run by and for wealthy special interests.
Democracy is premised on treating all citizens equally regardless or wealth or privilege. But American democracy is out of balance, and this decision further limits the tools Americans need to defend the integrity and legitimacy of representative government. Congress and state lawmakers should respond with effective ethics and public corruption laws to make clear that Gov. McDonnell’s behavior has no place in a functioning democracy.
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