That’s the question ultimately begged by revelations of his chief of staff’s bribery of former Virginia Democratic State Senator Phil Puckett. And make no mistake: it WAS bribery.[read_more]
Laura Vozzella at the Washington Post broke the story last night that McAuliffe Chief of Staff Paul Reagan offered Puckett a state job for his daughter in exchange for Puckett staying in the Senate, at a time when Puckett had announced (or was about to announce) that he was resigning from the Virginia Senate.
Vozzella obtained a transcript of the voicemail Reagan left Puckett offering his bribe:
“Hey Senator. This is Paul Reagan again. I just wanted to bounce one idea off you. I know there was a lot of frustration with your daughter, not, you know, getting a judgeship or something. if there’s something that we can do for her, I mean, you know, we have a couple of big agencies here that we still need agency heads. We could potentially, potentially, subject to approval of the governor and so forth, you know, the department of mines, minerals and energy could be available. So we would be very eager to accommodate her, if, if that would be helpful in keeping you in the senate. We, we would basically do anything. We just need you really, we need you for the rest of your term and beyond, but in the immediate future, we need you to help us get this Medicaid deal through and I think we’ve got a way to do it. So anyway, please let’s keep all this confidential. Call me 703-850—–. Thank you sir. Bye.”
(Emphasis added). The Virginia bribery statute reads, in relevant part, as follows:
§ 18.2-447. When person guilty of bribery.
A person shall be guilty of bribery under the provisions of this article:
(1) If he offers, confers or agrees to confer upon another (a) any pecuniary benefit as consideration for or to obtain or influence the recipient’s decision, opinion, recommendation, vote or other exercise of discretion as a public servant or party official…
Stated another way, a bribe is when someone offers a pecuniary benefit in exchange for a public servant’s decision or other exercise of official discretion. The offer does not have to be accepted for it to constitute an illegal bribe. Here, Reagan offered a job for Puckett’s daughter in exchange for Puckett’s decision or “exercise of discretion” to stay in the Senate. To the extent this isn’t simply a black and white instance of bribery, it is in whether a job for a family member constitutes a “pecuniary benefit” to Puckett himself. One might think it doesn’t, and that Reagan escapes culpability, but one would be wrong: the definition of “benefit” in the relevant article of the Virginia Code includes family members:
“Benefits” means a gain or advantage, or anything regarded by the beneficiary as a gain or advantage, including a benefit to any other person or entity in whose welfare he is interested…”
This is pretty clear. Reagan publicly apologized for making the phone call, and tried to say he acted completely on his own, but—even if that were true—it does not absolve him from making the illegal bribe.
And let’s think about this for a minute…the Governor’s right hand man doesn’t have the Governor’s blessing when he goes to a member of the legislature to offer something like this? Is that plausible, particularly when (as Reagan indicates in his voicemail) that the Governor’s absolute highest priority—Medicaid expansion—is at stake?
Maybe. But we deserve to know the truth.
If prosecutors can take on Bob and Maureen McDonnell for their having taken gifts in exchange for doing basically nothing, they can at least investigate Governor McAuliffe for potentially directing something much, much worse. And Paul Reagan can be the new Jonnie Williams, the guy with immunity from prosecution in exchange for his honest testimony about what McAuliffe knew, and when he knew it. At the very least, if our leaders are serious about ethics reform and restoring the public’s trust in Virginia’s government, McAuliffe’s chief of staff needs to resign now.
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A quick postscript: the subtext of this whole conversation was Medicaid expansion. Apparently Puckett was crucial for getting “this Medicaid deal through,” about which Reagan said, “I think we’ve got a way to do it.” That’s a string that needs pulling.
A deal? A way to do it? How could the Governor possibly have a way to do it, I wonder?? There are lots of clues in the public record, and I’m looking forward to more disclosures as the investigation of the corruption surrounding Puckett continues.
This is about to get fun. More later.
UPDATE: If I were and aggressive prosecutor, the above interpretation is what I’d use. But, after further discussion of this interpretation with people who practice law in Virginia, I think it’s not as open and shut as it seems. You see, the term “benefits” and “pecuniary benefit” are both defined, and it’s not clear that the definition of “benefits” also applies to the usage in the defined term “pecuniary benefit.” It’s not as clearly drafted as it probably should be, but in any case it is definitely clear that McAuliffe and his close associates were embroiled in a quid pro quo involving a taxpayer funded income stream in exchange for the exercise of official discretion.