Phil Hamilton’s legal defense reveals the low ethical bar for Virginia politicians. The fact that he can argue that unethical behavior is not criminal and is thereby acceptable should alarm the electorate. Apparently influence peddling and enrichment from the campaign coffers is just fine. Welcome to the third world.
Hamilton’s attorney admits that a collection of emails establishes that Hamilton talked to ODU about a job while pursuing funding for a teacher training center. At times, the two subjects come up in the same email. Those facts are not disputed.
However, says the defense attorney, nowhere does Hamilton force the issue in a way that proves criminal intent. Apparently if you are gentlemanly while soliciting a bribe, you don’t literally pull a gun, there is no coercion and it is just routine business. At least one party to the crime evinced he knew this was shameful:
Blackburn (the man who hired Hamilton) said Hamilton was hired “because he secured the funding.” Blackburn also hid the truth of Hamilton’s job when members of the Senate Finance Committee visited ODU to learn more about the center. He didn’t provide information to a committee staffer because “I didn’t want her to know what was going on – that money had been exchanged for a job.” – Daily Press
But the opportunity and temptation to benefit from public office is not always as blatantly clear as this case. As the Richmond Times Dispatch reported yesterday, politicians can earn a lot more than your local banking institution’s certificates of deposit by loaning money to their own campaigns. This is where politicians without business experience can stumble into what should be immediately recognizable as a conflict of interest.
And then there is the open door to lobbying firms after holding office. While it is no crime to take this path, there are both moral and ethical implications. While a permanent bar to lobbying is not practical, there should be a reasonable period of time between holding office and selling your soul to allow some consideration and to be certain it was not some kind of consideration that bagged the gig.
All of these can be better addressed within Virginia through state legislation that establishes the kinds of guidelines that establish ethics standards that will eliminate the grey area Hamilton’s defense is using to excuse his entrepreneurial initiative. While creating jobs may be an objective of legislators, creating their own jobs on the backs of their constituents should not. And once you’ve been bought and paid for, that should disqualify too (see George Allen).