The conflict of interest case of the year

With less than four months to go, the corruption case again the governor of Virginia and his wife seems destined for 2014 COI case of the year honors.  But while much of the press revolved around the Governor’s unsavory – and unsuccessful – trial strategy of throwing his wife/co-defendant “under the bus,” for COI aficionados what is noteworthy about the prosecution lies elsewhere.

First, on the public policy level, it highlights – as much as any case has in recent memory – the need for strong government ethics laws at the state level.    Perhaps states like Virginia (and NJ, where I live, which is infamous for its culture of corruption) will now look for guidance to those states that have been successful on this front, such as ethics front-runner Oregon.  

Second, on a law enforcement level, the case is precedent setting.  As described in this Washington Post article : “[L]egal experts say the case — especially if it survives an appeal — could encourage prosecutors to pursue similar charges against officials who take not-so-obviously significant actions on behalf of their alleged bribers and make it easier for them to win convictions. ‘I think the case clearly pushes the boundary of ‘official act’ out a bit farther, and I think that’s quite potentially important,’ said Patrick O’Donnell, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis. ‘It’s striking that here, McDonnell was not convicted on any traditional exercise of gubernatorial power. It wasn’t about a budget or a bill or a veto or appointment or a regulation.’ [Rather,] ‘[t]he McDonnells stand convicted of conspiring to lend the prestige of the governor’s office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams … by arranging meetings for him with state officials, allowing him to throw an event at the Virginia governor’s mansion and gently advocating for state studies of a product that Williams’s company sold.”

Third, and most relevant to C&E professionals, the case appears to be a striking example of the behaviorist learning, “we are not as ethical as we think” – a principle that helps underscores the need for strong C&E programs in organizations of all kinds.  That is,  based on McDonnell’s testimony,  there seemed to me a real possibility that he genuinely believed that he was not corrupted by the gifts and loans from Williams, and there is indeed some indication that the jurors found him sincere, at least generally.  But believing yourself to be unaffected by a conflict of interest doesn’t make it true – given the results of various behavioral ethics studies showing that COIs impact us considerably more than we appreciate.  (Posts relating to some of these studies are collected here.)    Perhaps this makes the McDonnell case – although more about conflicts in government than in business – a teachable moment for C&E practitioners in all settings.

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