What Happens to Corrupt Politicians After the Scandal Hits

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Given Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s (R) court trial, now seems as good a time as any to look at America’s politicians of the scandal-wrought variety, and see if and how their careers were affected. First, let’s give some of the background on McDonnell’s troubles before we launch into politicians in the same category.

Background on the McDonnell Scandal

Monday saw McDonnell facing a courtroom and tough questions as his indictment continued forward. The accusations in question target both the former Governor and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, with whom he is presently supposedly separated. I say supposedly because part of his defense is in claiming that no cooperative conspiratorial activity is possible between the two, distant as they are. This is a defense that’s been thrown into doubt by the legal opposition, who question his ignorance of the some $165,000 worth of gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams that his wife took.

An email from McDonnell to his wife displays the difficult juncture their marriage had reached, describing the “fiery anger and hate” he’d come to see from her, according to a tweet from Joanie Vasiliadis of USA Today.

He claims that he was unaware of many of the gifts given to his wife, and that as for those he did know of, he felt they weren’t problematic since Williams had not asked for anything in return. However, government officials are required by state law to make public those gifts over $50 from any company or person. Explanations for the failure to disclose everything from a Rolex, to wedding funding for his daughter, to golfing related spending, a vacation, and a shopping outing for designer items for his wife ranged from lack of knowledge to lack of comprehension, and often seemed to be portrayed as related to his wife’s actions and his difficulty in trying to reconcile their marriage.

McDonnell’s Career

Now, McDonnell’s time as governor had just finished up when the FBI cracked down on his family’s spending in connection with Williams. He’d left office as governor — where he could not be re-elected according to Virginia’s laws on the governorship. He left his position with a 53 percent approval rating, 31 disapproving, and with 16 percent polling at unsure, according to a NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll. Overall, adults in his state more often had a favorable view of him than a favorable one by a difference of 48 percent to 35 percent, considerably better than their polling on President Barack Obama, who Virginia adults put at 52 percent disapproval compared to 45 percent approval.

If there’s ever at time to be indicted — hint: there isn’t — it’s after your time in office has expired and you’re no longer able to re-run for your position. That said, the current legal debacle is likely to have a notable affect on McDonnell’s future in politics; if he’d been hoping to one day run for Senator, try his luck at the House of Representatives, or even aim for the national executive stage, as some indications suggest, it’s possible he’s lost any chance he ever had. Let’s take a look at other major corruption scandals that broke in the last few years, and what became of the political careers of those involved.

How Have Politicians Fared?

To do so, it seems wise to divide politicians who have faced scandal into three categories. There are politicians who are caught, punished, and basically blown out of the water; i.e. prison, jail, or forced resignation. There are those governing officials who manage to get off scot-free — perhaps not unblemished, but the blemish has no marked affect on their careers. Finally, there are politicians who survive their scandals, but are crippled in the process.

Out of the Game: Jackson, Yee, and Renzi

Former Representative Jesse L Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) saw himself standing before a judge around this time last year after pleading guilty in February 2013 alongside his wife. Both admitted to putting about $750,000 worth of campaign funds toward their own purchases, including watches, car repairs, and other items. “There may be blurred lines for Congress to follow when their lives are political. This case did not come near those areas,” said U.S. District Judge Amy Bergman Jackson, according to The Washington Post. Indeed, the result of the case was fairly straight-forward as well. Jackson resigned from his position and he and his wife were both sentenced to four years and 18 months, respectively — though the sentences were both below federal guidelines.

Those who followed California’s gun debate may remember State Senator Leland Yee’s (D-Calif.) tireless efforts to increase gun control and safety in his state. They may also recall that time when the Senator was caught conspiring to illegally deal firearms alongside known gangster Kwok Cheung Chow, a.k.a. Shrimp Boy, a.k.a. the “dragon head” of the Ghee Kung Tong Freemason lode in San Francisco, California. You’d think there’s no coming back from that FBI investigation or subsequent indictment; you can read the transcripts from the FBI investigation, and they’re rather damning. But here’s the crazy thing: even after dropping out of the race for California’s Secretary of State — which he’d been working toward just prior to his arrest — Yee somehow still managed 300,000 ballots in his favor, or third place, according to the Los Angeles Times. Yikes. Perhaps Yee is more an example of someone who would have only suffered a crippling blow to his career if the whole arrest thing hadn’t taken him out of the game.

In one last example of career-crushing corruption, we have former Representative Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) who was sentenced to three years in prison in October of 2013 for public corruption and money laundering, among other things. He wasn’t so much thrown out of office as he wisely chose not to run for re-election when the indictment broke.

Dodged the Bullet: Christie and Smith

Some would include New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as a corrupt politician who squeaked by with some careful maneuvering without too much overall damage. He is, after all, still a potential for the 2016 presidential primary, even after the bridge gate scandal and subsequent investigations.

He also dealt with scandal over potential misuse of hurricane Sandy funds with a $25 million ad run showing the Governor and his family, purportedly seeking to encourage visitors to the strong and resilient tourist destination of New Jersey. The scandal resulted in a review of the spending, which went to a public relations company instead of a different, cheaper firm; one that hadn’t suggested the use of Christie in the ads.

Harri Anne Smith, a state senator from Alabama, was one of four to be embroiled in a major scandal involving a gambling bill, state senators, gambling-related businesses, alleged bribery, and inappropriate offers for campaign funding in trade for votes on the bill. Tangled in amongst the mess were State Senators Harri Anne Smith, Jim Preuitt, Larry Means, and Quinton Ross Jr. So what became of them?

Smith was indicted during her re-election campaign, charged with one count conspiracy, two counts federal program bribery, one count extortion, eleven counts honest services mail and wire fraud, and four counts money laundering, according to CNN. Preuit, Means, and Ross Jr. saw similar charges. Smith won re-election and is currently serving as state senator, as is Ross Jr. — but Means and Preuitt are no longer in office.

Crippling Blow: Means, Preuitt, and Richardson

Somewhere between continued political growth and prison time, some politicians have taken their knocks but retained their jobs, or at least their freedom. Falling more into the category of these crippled politicians, Means and Preuitt struggled with subsequent re-elections, though whether their struggles were related to sullied reputations or inter and intra-party politics is quite debatable. In the case of Preuitt at least, I’d lean toward the latter.

Representative Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) is another example of a politician who went through the corruption and scandal ringer only to come out, if not exactly viable in the political landscape, at least imprisoned and still kicking. She was fined $10,000 in 2012 for forcing her staff to work on her 2010 campaign, and was ripped apart by the House Ethics Committee’s report. She was reprimanded — though not censured or expelled — and eventually lost a bid for re-election rather badly against Representative Janice Hahn, by 20 points according to the Los Angeles Times.

Unfortunately, there are an awful lot more examples we could draw upon, including the current scandal going on with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R). But the overall message is rather clear. Once we catch politicians — unlike ex-Italian-Senator Silvio Berlusconi’s time in office (during which he had immunity) — we do have a tendency to follow through with the complete removal and — albeit sometimes light — punishment of those who have violated the law and misused their position of power. Usually. Not always.

“Once caught” would certainly be the key words. If nothing is definitively shown or pinned down — and that’s rather difficult, apparently — politicians can retain incredible power despite smudges to their name. Still, as countries go, the United States is hardly the most corrupt, at least based on the 2012 report from Transparency International, a group that puts out a Corruption Perceptions Index utilizing data on government bribes, corporate reporting transparency, and similar measures. In 2012, the U.S. ranked 19th least corrupt out of 176 countries — not exactly stellar, but not screaming crisis either. Still, just because everything is relative doesn’t mean the U.S. doesn’t deserve a heft dose of criticism and a keenly peeled set of eyes from voters.

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