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 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.