By MARSHA MERCER
The Supreme Court on Monday gave public officials the green light to accept lavish gifts from people wishing to do business with the government – and then give their benefactors a leg up.
It’s OK for public officials to make phone calls, set up meetings and host events on behalf of goodie-givers – as long as they stop before taking any official acts. An official act is a focused and concrete exercise of government power, such as a lawsuit or a hearing, the court said.
The opinion, overturning the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on corruption charges, will make it harder for federal prosecutors to go after corrupt politicians, and it rightly outraged many who decry money and undue influence in politics.
In a few months, voters will choose between two presidential candidates most people distrust. It would be reassuring if tighter laws apply to presidents and the gifts they receive than to other public officials. Alas, that’s not the case.
The president is subject to the same porous bribery laws at issue in the McDonnell case. Worse, the president is exempt from many Office of Government Ethics rules that apply to other federal officials and employees, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Federal officials, for example, are banned from receiving presents from “prohibited sources” – those doing business with, seeking action from, or regulated by their agency. No such rules encumber the president. The president is free to accept unsolicited personal gifts from any American.
There are limits: The president may not solicit the gifts. He or she must disclose in annual financial reports gifts over a certain amount. And, the Constitution prohibits all federal officials, including the president, from receiving personal gifts from foreign governments, without the consent of Congress.
So, when Donald J. Trump recently blasted Hillary Clinton for accepting “$58,000 in jewelry from the government of Brunei when she was secretary of state,” he failed to mention it was not a personal gift. Clinton accepted on behalf of the United States and transferred the baubles to the General Services Administration.
The hand-off is standard procedure; the United States doesn’t want to embarrass foreign countries by refusing their gestures of friendship. The president or official who takes a fancy to a foreign gift can buy it, at fair market value.
In the Virginia case, businessman Jonnie Williams wanted state universities to conduct research on a nutritional supplement he was promoting. He gave McDonnell and his wife Maureen a luxury watch, designer clothes, gifts and loans worth more than $175,000.
McDonnell argued he did no more for Williams than officials commonly do to help businesses. The Supreme Court agreed and said the instructions to the jury were so broad they could potentially make ordinary constituent service criminal.
A 1999 Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California, foretold the court’s rationale. Writing for a unanimous court, the late Justice Antonin Scalia said a president’s hosting a championship sports team at the White House was not an official act. To think otherwise would invite the “absurdities” of corruption charges.
Even when legal, though, extravagant gifts can cause politicians heartburn.
In the 1980s, first lady Nancy Reagan was lambasted for “borrowing” designer gowns and jewelry for formal occasions. She stopped the practice. When the Reagans left office, undisclosed friends reportedly bought the couple a $2.5 million home in California. Nancy Reagan said the house was also a loan, paid back with interest.
President Clinton and Hillary left office in 2001 with gifts worth $190,027. When The Washington Post reported that $28,000 worth of furniture on the Clintons’ moving truck was intended for the White House, not as personal gifts, the Clintons returned those furnishings.
Their close friend Terry McAuliffe reportedly put up $1.35 million in cash to guarantee the Clintons’ mortgage in Chappaqua, New York. McAuliffe is now governor of Virginia.
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, the court of public opinion takes a dim view of politicians’ getting and giving special favors.
The unfortunate McDonnell ruling reminds voters that we need stronger state and federal ethics laws. But foxes rarely pass laws policing henhouses.
So it would behoove us all this election year to vet the character of candidates and ask what they’ll do to restore integrity to government.
As Reagan said: Trust, but verify.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.