Corrupt white politicians facing jail time never had it so good, right?
One of the funny but rather glaring and subtly white-privilege things we’ve seen in media coverage of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R-Va.) corruption trial, and the unveiling of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) slimy conviction in a case linked to allegations of sexual molestation, is that there are no mug shots.
Black politicians, though? Step right up—we’ve always got photo albums full of them.
In the case of McDonnell, a mainstream-media sympathy card has served a masterful sob story of rising Republican golden boy who suddenly made bad choices and fell on hard times. Just as we caught photo loops of McDonnell and his equally corrupt wife profiling in a bribing millionaire’s Ferrari convertible, or read stories of $20,000 shopping sprees, $15,000 wedding caterers and yacht rentals, the former Virginia governor once widely viewed as a presidential contender still looked polished.
That sob story apparently worked so well for McDonnell that—post-conviction and still jail-less after being sentenced to two years in prison—he’s now got an audience with the U.S. Supreme Court.
And the high court is currently entertaining overturning his conviction while actually redefining the very contours of political corruption as we know it. Even liberal justices like Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer seemed to buy the former governor’s point that federal prosecutors were overzealous in their bribery investigation. “My problem is criminal law as the weapon to cure it,” said Breyer on corruption and the question of whether to criminalize routine acts of quid pro quo between politicians and donors. “This is a very basic separation-of-powers problem for me.”
“That is a recipe for the Department of Justice and prosecutors to wield enormous power over elected officials,” said Breyer.
When it comes to corrupt or convicted black politicians, however, those sorts of fundamental or esoteric questions never come up.
Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick just knocked on the Supreme Court’s docket in January, a last-chance attempt at overturning a massive 28-year prison sentence for extortion, bribery and fraud while running City Hall. Going on four months, no word from SCOTUS on it, perhaps little love for or inspiration from the onetime “Hip-Hop Mayor.”
McDonnell’s appeal, on the other hand, practically breezed through to a Supreme Court hearing less than two months after it was filed.
There’s also former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, of Hurricane Katrina legend and infamy, now serving a 10-year federal prison sentence on bribery, conspiracy and money laundering. Nagin is so broke he’s using a public defender, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—just a level below the Supreme Court—rejected his appeal, calling it “meritless.”
Louisiana, of course, is no stranger to the soupiness of political graft and hand-greasing. There’s former Democratic Rep. William Jefferson, also from New Orleans, who is currently serving the longest prison term of any member of Congress in U.S. history: 13 years for corruption and influence buying. That’s more than white California Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s eight years for federal conspiracy charges. Or that of the late, crazy Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) of House floor-antics repute, another white guy the feds let out of jail after seven tumultuous, riot-inciting years in it, but who also let him run a congressional campaign from his prison cell.
Just across the bridge from McDonnell’s Virginia, former Prince George’s County, Md., Executive Jack Johnson—whose wiretap transcripts and wife’s notorious stuffing of her bra with cash were put on national blast—is serving a seven-year, three-month prison sentence for corruption. That case, involving both him and his County Council-member wife, Leslie, looks almost eerily similar to the McDonnells’ on some levels.
But black political wives seem to have it bad where white political wives don’t. Maureen McDonnell has yet to serve her one-year sentence—that, too, on hold pending the Supreme Court decision—while Leslie Johnson, of bra-stuffing legend, went ahead and served 10 months and was released on good behavior.
Meanwhile, former Gov. McDonnell seems near to breaking Supreme Court appeal records in an all-out fight against spending two years in federal prison as part of a sentence he has not yet served. Former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., on the other hand, manned up like Kilpatrick, like Nagin and like Jefferson before him, to serve a full two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for stealing $750,000 from his campaign coffers for personal use.
In that same state of Illinois, Hastert gets just 15 months for covering up the “serial” sexual abuse of boys on his wrestling team. Yes: 15 months. Back to Chicago, over 20 years ago, black Democratic Rep. Mel Reynolds—later replaced by Jackson Jr.—got slammed with a five-year prison sentence for statutory rape and child porn convictions.
So, on sidebar, let’s be clear: We shouldn’t give any corrupt politician a pass, black or white. And it’s tough—downright legal malpractice, indeed—to compare cases, statutes and prosecutors in one state with the outcomes in another. Some cases are just that much more egregious than others. It’s all different on a case-by-case basis; sometimes it’s the luck of the jury draw, other times it’s really about your skill in finding (and affording) a good lawyer. Sometimes the laws are different according to the jurisdiction.
Yet, in watching McDonnell’s comparable slap-on-the-wrist journey to a potential landmark decision, we can’t help wondering if an African-American politician in similar straits would have received the same, open-ear treatment on First Street … if he or she’d get that far.
In general, the research will show black defendants faced with higher conviction rates than their white counterparts. It’s unclear if that same courtroom double standard shifts over to corrupt or criminally charged black politicians. But what we can see, thanks to the gentle brush of sympathetic media coverage, is that something’s definitely working for McDonnell and others who look like him, as opposed to those who do not.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.