The trip from statehouse to big house

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, September 9, 2014 4:04pm
  • Opinion

Faithful readers (both of you) possibly will remember back to what I wrote just a few weeks ago. Well, maybe not, but it was a snarky take on the ongoing corruption trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his first lady while he was in office, wife Maureen. Instead of taking the easy way out and copping a plea, the two went to trial. To convince a jury they were guilty of no crime in taking $177,000 in goodies from one businessman in exchange for favorable treatment, they put on the most bizarre defense: Their marriage was too broken for them to participate in any scheme together. Day after day, we were treated to gory details of their terrible relationship and how the missus was a “nutbag.” It was a laugh a minute.

Only now it’s no longer funny; it’s pathetic. It didn’t work. Both were found guilty of most of the charges. They could spend years in jail. We’ll find out how many when they’re sentenced in January. Of course, there will be appeals, but what’s really sad is that none of this was necessary.

Not only could they have taken a deal from prosecutors, which would have resulted in minimal or no jail time (and just for him) while avoiding all the humiliating disclosure of their matrimonial wreckage, but they also could have taken care of their financial problems the old-fashioned way — by simply waiting till the end of his term and going through that revolving door to riches and a cushy, high-paying job with one of the companies whose cause the governor championed while still in office.

The way it usually works is that all he gets when he’s still a major elected domo is a sly wink from the lobbyists. There’s nothing as tacky as financial largesse and expensive vacations or bribes while in office from some smarmy operator, in this case a guy who was peddling a questionable medical supplement. In the old days, he would have been a snake-oil salesman. But in modern times, part of the reason for going through all the political gyrations is the expectation of a pot of gold at the end of your tenure.

In McDonnell’s own state of Virginia, for instance, we witnessed the journey of Eric Cantor. Cantor put in his time, rising to House majority leader, until he lost his district’s Republican primary in a huge upset. Now it’s announced that Cantor, who was regarded as a big supporter of Wall Street while in Congress, will be taking a top executive position at … wait for it … an investment bank, with an annual salary of nearly $3.5 million.

Let’s rush to say that there’s nothing illegal about the Cantor transition. There had better not be; it’s the payoff that one can expect when one switches from the public trough to the private one, a normal, albeit smarmy, career move. It may seem corrupt to those of us lesser chumps, but it’s routine. Another way it’s done is that after a brief wait, members of Congress and high administration officials take seven-figure jobs as lobbyists or advisers, talking client trash with their ex-colleagues in the Capitol, White House or cabinet departments.

The commonwealth of Virginia is crawling with corporate sugar daddies. Clearly, the McDonnells could have achieved the lifestyle they were pining for by digging in, paying the minimum on their maxed-out credit cards, wearing the same old clothes and then following the yellow brick road. Had they just turned down the chintzy graft, they would be living large now, either together or, if one believes the court testimony, happily and prosperously divorced.

Instead, their separate households could very well be different penitentiaries, each of them imprisoned by petty greed and impatience.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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