In one case, a key step across the line came when a powerful state legislator from Newport News bumped into a state Senate staffer by a Capitol Square elevator; in the other, it came when a newly elected governor's wife yearned for a designer dress for an inaugural ball.
Both involved financially pressed public officials — former Del. Phil Hamilton and former Gov. Bob McDonnell — who took something more than just their public salaries from people who wanted something from the state.
Hamilton is serving a nine and a half year prison sentence, convicted of using his legislative muscle to wangle himself a $40,000-a-year part-time job at Old Dominion University. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted Tuesday, accused of accepting more than $160,000 of gifts and loans for themselves and family members from a Virginia businessman who wanted state help to promote his company's products and fund research into their health effects.
Hamilton crossed an ethical line that Virginians have long agreed applied to officials: They're not supposed to do things for people who give gifts or jobs to them or money to their political campaigns.
McDonnell crossed a line, federal prosecutors say, just as clear and bright: Officials aren't supposed to accept gifts or money from people who want them to do something. (Federal officials won't say what's happened to a more than 2-year-old investigation of state Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, for his role in creating a tax break for a firm that later hired him. Miller declined to comment Wednesday.)
"Every elected official, everyone who wants to be, needs to ask themselves: Does the old Virginia way of doing things — essentially that you can accept unlimited amounts and that the clear bright line is whether you so something for them — still apply? Because federal prosecutors believe the clear bright line is knowing the intent of the giver," said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University.
And the feds, political scientists say, are going to be a presence from now on in Virginia.
"The public corruption division of the FBI, for example, has long suspected that Virginia is for more than lovers," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
"The feds are paid to be vigilant," he said. And they know that "corruption flourishes in the shade, when surrounded by naivete."
In the shadows, a chance meeting between Hamilton and state Senate staffer Susan Herzog during the 2007 session nailed down $500,000 in state money for a teacher training center Hamilton wanted to fund, and tied the money to Old Dominion.
Hamilton had been telling ODU he'd secure funding for the center – and that he would be a perfect person to run it. In a December 2006 email to the president of ODU, he wrote "when we spoke about the Center last August, I expressed an interest in being associated with the initiative from a professional perspective. Since then, I haven't heard anything more about an employment possibility ... I would like to discuss this possibility with you prior to leaving for the GA [General Assembly]."
And perhaps out of naivete, Maureen McDonnell told Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams she'd take a rain check from him for a designer dress. The governor's staff had told her she couldn't accept a dress from him to wear at the inauguration.
About 10 months after that, when Williams let McDonnell use his private jet for an unofficial trip to California, Williams popped the key question, federal prosecutors allege. Williams told McDonnell he needed the state's help with research into the possible health benefits of a new product. McDonnell said he would put him in touch with Secretary of Health and Human Resources William Hazel.
Hamilton repeatedly asked ODU officials for a job, several times specifying the salary he wanted, including a follow-up to his December email in which he attached his budget amendment for center that noted "I will need to supplement my current NNPS [Newport News Public Schools] income ($38,000) by at least an equal amount or separate from NNPS for $75,000 per year. Thanks."
When the House and state Senate versions of the state budget went to a conference committee on which Hamilton sat, he proposed appropriating $500,000 to ODU for the center, and the committee agreed. The day after the General Assembly adjourned, an ODU official emailed Hamilton, "Are congratulations in order? Are you our new director?" Hamilton signed a contract in June 2007, including a promise to continue to seek funding for the center, and received his first paycheck in July.
The McDonnells asked Williams for help more than once, too. In April, at Mrs. McDonnell's request, prosecutors allege, Williams took her on a New York shopping spree, spending more than $19,000 on clothing and jewelry. The next month, she asked Williams for a $50,000 loan and told him she did not know how to pay for a $15,000 catering bill for a daughter's wedding.
Mrs. McDonnell said she could help Star Scientific, but that she needed Williams' financial assistance, federal prosecutors allege.
Williams, after talking to McDonnell himself about the McDonnell family's financial problems, made the loan and wrote a check to cover the catering. He also treated McDonnell, his sons and future son-in-law to a $2,380 golf outing.
A month after receiving the loan, in June 2011, Mrs. McDonnell headlined an investor event for Star Scientific and offered the Governor's Mansion for the official launch of a new product. Williams that month also asked McDonnell to arrange for studies of the new nutritional supplement at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University.
In the end, Hamilton worked for ODU until 2009, collecting about $80,000 in salary. Williams eventually gave or lent McDonnell family members more than $160,000.
McDonnell says his efforts to connect Williams with potentially helpful state officials, and his and Mrs. McDonnell's participation in Star's promotional events were things he would do for any Virginia business.
If he's guilty of corruption for that, he argues, plenty of others have been, too.
In a way, that's the problem, said CNU's Kidd.
"Over the years, I'm sure there have been plenty of Virginia politicians who have come up to that line, and crossed it," he said. "I think it is a matter of not realizing it is a problem.... When Phil Hamilton was convicted, there was a lot of handwringing about what a tragedy it was, but what people said was that most people do it right."
The reason for that confidence is the same reason that McDonnell feels he did nothing wrong, Kidd added: "Bob McDonnell's defense is ... so long as I didn't really do something and they didn't get anything, I'm fine."
But that's not the way federal prosecutors look at things. It may no longer be good enough as Virginia becomes a political battleground state, with highly competitive political parties, watchful reformers and more attentive federal law enforcement keeping politicians under closer scrutiny, Kidd said.
And McDonnell's defense that everyone does it may not wash, said U.Va.'s Sabato.
"No question the McDonnells went much further than any Virginia governor I have followed since the 1960s," he said. "That isn't to excuse some of the gifts and trips other governors may have accepted. We needed ethics reform a long time ago. Something as bad as the current situation was inevitable in time."
Sabator is not too hopeful – especially when it comes to tackling Virginia's wide open campaign finance law, where the really big money from special interests flows to politicians.
"The General Assembly will do as little as it can get away with," he said. "To me, other than gift limits and the breadth of their application, the key is a strong ethics commission with investigatory and subpoena powers. I'll believe it when I see it. And campaign reform? Let's get real. Not gonna happen."
Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun