Checks: Political Money & Democracy

House Democrats Have a Plan to Go After Trump’s Conflicts

On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump held a long-awaited press conference to address how he will deal with the potential conflicts of interest posed by his massive business empire. For weeks, ethics watchdogs have called on the president-elect to fully divest from his business operations and place them in a blind trust.

Trump ignored those demands, announcing that he will retain ownership of his businesses, which his sons will oversee in a trust. To address concerns about possible violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, Trump said that he will donate all of earnings from hotel bookings made by foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. (Sheri Dillon, Trump’s attorney has argued that his hotel holdings do not violate the Emoluments Clause.)

Trump continued to insist that none these measures were required by law and that he was making these moves voluntarily. “[My sons] are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They’re not going to discuss it with me. Again, I don’t have to do this. They’re not going to discuss it with me,” Trump said.

In response, House Democrats plan to launch a “Democracy Reform Task Force” that aims to hold Trump accountable for conflicts of interest and ethical lapses. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has tapped Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes, a leading proponent of ethics reform, to head the task force.

Trump’s plan “doesn’t come close to solving the problems that these conflicts of interest present,” Sarbanes says in an interview with the Prospect. “This notion that giving it to his sons to look after is absurd as representing any real distancing from these conflicts.”

“Without fully divesting ownership, there’s no way to avoid potential for divided loyalties. When he goes to make a decision [as president], somewhere in his brain, if he still has business ownership, he’s got to be thinking if the decision as president will hurt or benefit his business,” Sarbanes adds.

While the Democrats’ new task force won’t have any formal power to investigate Trump, Sarbanes said that members will hold ethics forums around the country; provide resources to ranking Democrats on relevant committees; and highlight Democratic legislation—like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill that would require Trump to fully divest or Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin’s bill to ban “golden parachute” bonuses for private-sector executives entering public service—that address the ethical concerns of Trump’s administration. “[The task force] can be a very effective clearinghouse on this broad issue of accountability,” Sarbanes says.

Sarbanes hopes that the task force will serve as a rapid-response operation to deal with Trump administration ethics concerns as they emerge. He also wants to see the group organize campaigns like the one that public-interest organizations led in early January that generated a flood of constituent calls to House Republicans after news broke that they planned to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. The calls were widely credited with forcing Republicans to back off the plan.

The Democrats’ ethics task force could become their primary tool for challenging the impending ethical dilemmas of the Trump administration, especially since they aren’t optimistic that congressional Republicans will monitor or rein in any new Trump conflicts that come to light.

Sarbanes is setting out to recruit members of the Democratic caucus to help articulate “nimble, timely” responses as needed while crafting an overarching message that Democrats are leading the way on holding Trump accountable. “We want to be in the middle of that conversation,” he says, adding “I don’t see that coming from the other side of the aisle.”

As part of, the House task force will also focus on other democracy and campaign-finance issues that are part of its larger “By the People” package and, further, will seek to “expose the GOP’s special-interest agenda.” 

New Jersey Public School Employees Sue Over Alleged Political Retalitation

It’s no secret that school board politics can create bitter enemies, but rarely do such battles end in actual employee firings.

But nine New Jersey public school employees are claiming that a school board feud cost them their jobs, and they've recently filed a provocative federal lawsuit, each seeking $100,000 in damages.

The former employees of Elizabeth Public Schools—the fourth-largest school district in New Jersey—say they were fired for exercising their First Amendment rights of political speech and association after they campaigned for certain school board candidates who ultimately lost. In what could turn out to be a costly twist, the school board says it might file a countersuit, alleging nothing less than federal racketeering violations.

The whole drama is unfolding against the backdrop of a bitter political feud that’s divided two competing factions within the local Democratic party.

The case centers on the district’s November 2015 school board election, when three of nine seats were up for grabs. Two rival Democratic blocs endorsed different slates of candidates, though the elections are technically nonpartisan.

According to the federal complaint, one faction, known as “Continue The Progress” (CTP), has maintained a majority on the school board for about two decades. In 2015, three candidates (Tony Monteiro, Elcy Castillo-Ospina, and Michelle Velez-Jont) ran on the CTP ticket.

The other Democratic faction, backed by Elizabeth’s mayor of 25 years, J. Christian Bollwage, supported three CTP opponents (Charlene Bathelus, Stephanie Goncalves, and Daniel Nina). Prior to the 2015 election, the school board comprised five CTP members and four Bollwage-backed members. But all the CTP candidates lost, giving the mayoral faction a 6–3 majority.

The plaintiffs allege that upon taking power, the Bollwage faction “purged” the district of employees who openly supported or were perceived to support the CTP candidates. They claim their contracts were terminated not due to performance, “but rather due to retaliation” for political activity. Their 28-page complaint, drafted by an attorney with a Philadelphia-based law firm, alleges First Amendment violations, due process violations, and violations of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.

The stakes for this kind of suit are high. In the September 2015 issue of The American Prospect, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of public affairs at Columbia, reported on the growing threat of “employer mobilization”—when employers recruit workers into political activity (or retaliate against them for their own political activity). Workers are already subjected to threats, harassment, and other forms of retaliation for union activity, and Hertel-Fernandez says that “it is not a stretch to imagine that in our deeply polarized era, employers might adopt more aggressive political tactics in the same way they have fought unionization.”

In a statement released to Union News Daily (named for the New Jersey county Elizabeth is located in, not the labor movement), Elizabeth district spokesperson Pat Politano said the allegations made against the district, the superintendent, and the school board are “false, frivolous, and will be defended vigorously.” All contract renewals made since January 2016, he said, were done in accordance with state and federal law and Department of Education regulations. According to NJ.Com, Politano’s former job involved consulting for the political campaigns of mayor-backed board members.

Politano said the school district is “considering all appropriate legal actions” in response to the complaint, including the possibility of filing the racketeering counterclaim, arguing that previous boards of education saw the district “as a source of personal benefit to themselves and their political allies.”

In this northern New Jersey city, it seems corruption charges can fly both ways—even within the same party.

Jeff Sessions Is Public Enemy Number One for Voting-Rights Groups

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore) 

Common Cause, a nonpartisan political advocacy and watchdog group, rarely wades into political nomination battles. In its nearly half-century of existence, the group has come out in staunch opposition to just a handful of nominees it found extraordinarily hostile to its core mission. Now it will oppose the confirmation of Trump’s expected nominee for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, citing his troublesome record on voting rights.  

“We do not believe and do not have confidence, because of his past history and actions, that he will enforce critical voting-rights laws,” Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said during a meeting with reporters on Tuesday morning. “He has for decades been an outspoken critic of the Voting Rights Act, one of the country’s most critical pieces of civil and voting rights legislation.”

The group pointed to Sessions’s past statements calling the VRA a “piece of intrusive legislation,” to his approval of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to gut the law’s crucial Section 5, and to his failed legal crusade against three civil rights activists who were registering voters while he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama in the 1980s as evidence that the senator would be hostile toward robust voter protections.

“We believe that if he becomes attorney general, the Voting Rights Act is on the chopping block and many of the recent victories in the courts that we’ve seen that have struck down laws designed to suppress minority voting will be threatened under a Sessions-led Justice Department,” Hobart Flynn added. 

Since 2010, 20 states have passed restrictive voting laws. The Obama DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has successfully challenged the legality of several of those voter-suppression laws that required photo identification or used racial gerrymandering to create redistricting maps. But Common Cause is concerned that a Sessions Justice Department would be far less vigilant in its enforcement of voting rights. 

The group’s announcement that it will attempt to block Sessions’s nomination could hold some sway. It boasts a membership base of some 700,000 members with chapters in 35 states. Its grassroots strength was on full display earlier this week when it helped lead a constituent call-in campaign to Republican House members who wanted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Whether it can use that grassroots firepower to convince Sessions’s Republican Senate colleagues to vote against him will be a taller order. But Common Cause won’t be going it alone. On Monday, NAACP leaders staged a sit-in and were ultimately arrested in the senator’s Mobile office, calling on him to withdraw his name from consideration due to his voting-rights record and numerous allegations of racism.

Recent confirmations opposed by Common Cause include Reagan Supreme Court justice nominee Robert Bork in 1987 and George H.W. Bush defense secretary nominee John Tower in 1989, both of whom failed to get confirmed. It also opposed Reagan’s nomination of Attorney General Edwin Meese and George W. Bush’s Federal Election Commission member Hans von Spakovsky, both of whom succeeded in their confirmations.   

Reforming Democracy in the Age of Trump

On November 10, Miles Rapoport sat down with Bob Herbert's Op-Ed.TV to discuss what led to Donald Trump's victory, what it means for voting rights and money in politics, and how democracy reformers should respond. Rapoport is a long-time democracy advocate who served as secretary of state in Connecticut, and president of both Demos and Common Cause, as well as a member of The American Prospect's board. His most recent feature, "From a Contentious Election to a Stronger Democracy" appeared in the Prospect's Fall 2016 issue. 

More Corporations Embrace Disclosure, Despite Conservative Opposition

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is in a standoff with Democrats as he refuses to remove a rider to a short-term funding bill that would prohibit the Securities and Exchange Commission from strengthening political disclosure requirements for corporations.

Stopping measures that would shine some light on corporations’ secret political spending is a top priority for McConnell, along with his powerful allies at one of the leading sources of dark money: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Chamber officials argue that requiring more disclosure is a just an underhanded ploy to keep corporations from exercising free speech.

Yet an increasing number of American companies don’t see it that way. With greater scrutiny on corporate money in politics, businesses are adopting internal policies that specifically disclosure their political activities and some are even voluntarily curbing their campaign spending, according to a new report on corporate transparency from the Center for Political Accountability and the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“We find that companies now recognize that political spending is a risk and that they need to have disclosure policies in place,” says Bruce Freed, president and founder of the Center for Political Accountability (CPA). He says that after Citizens United corporations face greater pressure from trade associations, political nonprofits, and super PACs who want their money and find that putting transparency policies in place can provide a buffer against such requests.

For the first time, the annual CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability compares the policies of all Standard & Poor’s 500 companies, including some of the biggest political spenders in the country, over consecutive years. The analysis examines corporate policies regarding political spending; board of directors’ oversight of political spending; disclosure of trade association dues and contributions to 501(c)(4)s; and other metrics.

The CPA-Zicklin Index finds that a growing number of companies have addressed the rise of dark money by developing or strengthening policies that require some level of disclosure of payments to trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the American Chemistry Council as well as social-welfare 501(c)(4)s. These groups have been driving forces behind the increase in undisclosed political campaign contributions.

Nearly half of all S&P 500 companies disclosed some type of payment to trade associations or specifically directed these groups not to use their money on election spending. Nearly one third disclosed some type of information about contributions to social-welfare groups, noted that they prohibited contributions to these types of groups, or had directed these types of groups not to use contributions on election-related activities. The report noted that 53 companies instituted some type of limitation on payments made to social-welfare groups and trade associations, up from 40 in 2015.

“Companies have a responsibility to know how their money is being used and have a say in how it’ll be spent,” Freed says. “Even if they don’t disclose payments but do disclose memberships, that means that questions can be asked. Shareholders know; journalists know; the public knows.”

The chamber, along with other trade groups, has pushed back against the CPA-Zicklin Index. Last year, The Huffington Post published an email message sent to the Carlton Group, a Washington, D.C., corporate interest group, by Lisa Rickard, president of the chamber’s Institute of Legal Reform, calling the Index “part of an orchestrated campaign to ultimately limit the business community’s ability to engage in political and policy debates.”

Many of the companies leading the way on transparency are also members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, despite the organization’s stark opposition to any type of corporate disclosure—mandatory or voluntary. Of the 94 companies in the top tier of the index, 36 are verified members of the chamber, according to a tally provided to the Prospect by the CPA. Those member-companies include industry behemoths like Pfizer, Monsanto, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Dow Chemical, Aetna, and Altria.

“That’s the thing we find very ironic,” Freed says. “The chamber’s opposition has had no effect on companies decisions on disclosure and has had no impact on continued pace of disclosure. We’ve seen no companies back down.”

The chamber is the largest source of dark money in the 2016 election so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, having already spent more than $22 million this election cycle to protect the Republican Party’s majority in the Senate. The trade group’s spending, funded by undisclosed donors, has fueled record-levels of dark-money contributions across the country. Meanwhile, political nonprofits have already spent nearly $50 million in federal elections, and that figure is expected to skyrocket in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

Still, disclosure advocates argue that the voluntary corporate transparency policies do not negate the need for uniform and universal disclosure regulations, as the proposed SEC rule would require.

“This trend of increasing voluntary disclosure is a sign that this is becoming a norm and that is happening because investors want this disclosure,” says Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “The SEC should take their cue from those investors.” 


This Is What Happens When a State Has No Contribution Limits

Rex Sinquefield, left, shakes hands with Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder in 2011. (Photo: Flickr, Fired Up! Missouri)

The RNC platform released this week broadly calls for rolling back federal campaign-finance laws—going so far as to advocate for the right of donors to contribute unlimited amounts of money. “Limits on political speech serve only to protect the powerful and insulate incumbent officeholders. We support repeal of federal restrictions on political parties in McCain-Feingold, raising or repealing contribution limits,” the party’s platform states.

Curious what that may look like? Well, look no further than Missouri, one of the few states that places absolutely no limits on campaign contributions. Combine limitless political giving with a pivotal governor’s race, and you’ve got a recipe for a Wild West-style campaign season.

Missouri’s gubernatorial primary elections are just a few weeks away, and there are four candidates still vying for the GOP nomination. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that three of those four candidates have received more than $1 million from a single individual or family. It’s no wonder why the battle for the job is so heated: A Republican governor would be incredibly powerful. The legislature is currently controlled by Republicans, and with Democrats unlikely to pick up many seats this November, the GOP would have complete control of the state.

Missouri business owner and mega-donor David Humphreys and his sister Sarah Atkins each gave $500,000 to Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder, the GOP gubernatorial frontrunner. Humphreys is a major opponent of organized labor and wants Missouri to pass right-to-work legislation that was vetoed by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon. In addition to his contribution to Kinder, who supports right-to-work laws, Humphreys and his family have given nearly $3 million to a PAC to target pro-union Republicans.

Catherine Hanaway, a former Missouri speaker of the House, has received at least $3 million from St. Louis investor Rex Sinquefield, the state’s most powerful funder of conservative politics, or PACs that he funds. Over a two-month period last year, Sinquefield contributed $10,000 a week to Hanaway’s campaign. For many years, Sinquefield has funded the state’s conservative politicians, organizations, and causes to the tune of $40 million and is a staunch supporter of repealing all Missouri taxes.

Another GOP candidate’s campaign, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, got a last minute donation this week of nearly $2 million. The contribution came from SEALs for Truth, a Washington-based group set up last month: So far Greitens is the only candidate to receive any money from the organization.

What about the fourth GOP candidate, you ask? That would be former CEO John Brunner. While he hasn’t received millions from any single outside donor, Brunner himself has given or loaned at least $4.75 million of his own money to his campaign. It’s not his first rodeo—in 2012, he self-funded his unsuccessful $8 million bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

Missouri offers just a small taste of what Republicans Party leaders hope could happen nationwide. They see unlimited political contributions as an affirmation of free speech and a boon for political competition.

However, as the Missouri case illustrates, what ends up happening is that all the millionaires and billionaires who are willing to spend small fortunes propping up the campaigns of their preferred candidates are drowning out the political voices of everyday citizens. Instead they work to advance policies, like repealing income and corporate taxes or making it harder for their workers to unionize, that disproportionately benefit the wealthy. 

The FEC Just Slapped Koch Brothers Groups with a Big Fine

In a sign that, surely, the end times are near, the partisan-deadlocked Federal Election Commission actually agreed to enforce campaign-finance laws—six years after the fact.  

Three groups funded by Charles and David Koch’s expansive political network agreed to pay $233,000 in fines to the FEC for illegally hiding the identities of donors to their 2010 political ad campaigns, according to a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) press release. The watchdog group filed a FEC complaint against several groups in 2014.

The complaint centered on the 60 Plus Association, the American Future Fund, and Americans for Job Security. These social-welfare nonprofits spent millions of dollars that they received from the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR), which at the time was the Koch brothers’ main political vehicle, without disclosing the source of the money.

That would have been fine if the organizations had used the money for general expenses, as they originally claimed in FEC filings. Social-welfare groups, however, are required to disclose the source of donations if the money is earmarked for specific political activities.

The groups probably would have stayed way below the federal radar, like so many other dark-money groups. But Sean Noble, a political operative for CPPR who helped dole out the Kochs’ money, blabbed to National Review in 2014 that he was closely involved in producing and targeting the ads.

At that point, CREW filed a complaint with the FEC. The agency opened an investigation and eventually found that Noble’s consulting firm helped produce and place the ads for the groups.

“These rules provide some of the only windows into the funding of dark money groups, but the FEC almost never penalizes groups that break them,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement. “It is hard to overstate how significant this is.”

While $233,000 may seem like a small amount of money for groups flush with Koch cash (and it is), it’s a huge sum for the FEC. In the first five months of 2016, the FEC has only levied $273,000 in total civil penalties—an average of $15,000 per violation. But this enforcement action is a drop in the bucket of dark-money spending.

Unfortunately, even when the FEC does take action it can come long after the violation actually occurs: The move comes six years after the ads actually ran, and the agency likely wouldn’t have levied any penalties if one political operative hadn’t bragged to the press. Campaign-finance reformers contend that the FEC must act with greater speed and strength in order to deter political puppetmasters like the Koch brothers from playing politics in the shadows.

But reformers have to take their wins where they can get them, and when the FEC actually agrees to take action—against the Kochs, no less—that is a big win.

“This is the largest fine the FEC has collected from groups active in post–Citizens United elections,” Bookbinder said. “This case sends an important signal that groups that brazenly disregard the law will be held accountable. We hope this is a sign of things to come and the FEC will continue to hit dark money groups with major penalties for violating the law.”

Report: Most Pharma Donations Go to Drug-Affordability Opponents

Alarmed by a new Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) pilot program that aims to bring down the cost of drugs to patients, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have lined up against it, citing concerns ranging from rationing of care to reduction in rural patients’ access to affordable providers. But a Public Citizen report released Monday shows that many of the members of Congress who opposed the pilot are also bankrolled by the pharmaceutical and health-products industry—major opponents of the proposal.

The “Pharma’s Orders” study by the nonprofit watchdog group examines the contributions received by the 310 members of Congress (240 Republicans and 70 Democrats) who signed two letters, as well as by the 124 members who did not sign either. (One letter opposed the CMS Medicare Part B demonstration project; a second expressed “concerns” about it.) Signers received 82 percent more in contributions during 2016 than those who didn’t sign.

“The contrast here is pretty stark and shows a case where influence is pretty clear,” says Rick Claypool, a Public Citizen research director and the author of the report.

The signers received a combined total of more than $7 million from the pharmaceutical and health-products industry, with an average of $23,344 per individual. Those who didn’t sign either letter got nearly $1.6 million from the industry in total, with an average of $12,789.

It’s not only the signers who are top recipients of pharmaceutical money. Many lawmakers who have otherwise come out publicly against the measure have also been targeted by the industry.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has criticized the proposal for potentially driving seniors in rural areas toward hospital treatment, which is more costly. So far this year, Wyden has received $365,441 from the pharmaceutical and health industry. Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who called it “an ill-conceived experiment” that amounted to human research, received $130,100. Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who questioned why it was so large and expansive, received $226,310. And Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and one of the plan’s fiercest opponents, received a massive $693,377 from the industry.

The vast majority of the industry’s contributions have gone to Republicans, but Claypool believes this case reflects the current make-up of Congress, which is 56 percent Republican. Historically, the pharmaceutical and health-products industry has tended to steer most of its congressional contributions to members of the party that effectively controls Congress.

The pilot program proposed by CMS Deputy Administrator Dr. Patrick Conway would test how changing the drug-reimbursement system affects doctors’ prescribing behavior. Critics charge that the existing system incentivizes doctors to prescribe more expensive drugs.

Currently, Medicare reimburses physicians the average sale price plus 6 percent for each drug that they prescribe. The proposed measure would lower this percentage to 2.5 percent, and replace the average sales price with a flat payment of $16.80 per drug per day. 

“In a way, we’re trying to reduce monetary influence in this process just as we’re trying to reduce it in the political process,” says Claypool.

Following the volley of criticism from members of Congress, Conway told the Senate Finance Committee that CMS intends to go forward with plan, albeit with modifications.

Court Deals Blow to Advocates Fighting Voter Registration Obstacles

Voting rights advocates trying to rein in the head of the beleaguered federal Election Assistance Commission are getting no favors from the courts. Last week, a D.C. Circuit Court judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction blocking what critics say are voter-registration barriers that violate federal law.

Back in January, Brian Newby, the commission’s executive director, unilaterally approved requests from Georgia, Alabama, and Kansas to  require voters to provide proof of citizenship when they use a federal mail-in voter registration form.

Soon after, the League of Women Voters sued Newby and the commission in an attempt to block those actions, arguing that Newby violated federal law by approving changes to the form without a full commission vote.

Now the judge has refused to temporarily block the states’ new requirements while the case proceeds, potentially making it more difficult for people in those states to register to vote in upcoming elections.

“While we are disappointed in [the] decision, we will appeal to protect the critical rights of voters in these three states, especially during this election year,” Chris Carson, the League of Women Voters president, said in a statement.

The League believes that not only are Newby’s actions contrary to the commission’s own protocols, which require that all members of the commission vote on such matters, but they are also a clear departure from previous commission rulings and Supreme Court decisions.

In 2014, the commission rejected similar requests from Arizona and Kansas to require people to submit proof of citizenship with the federal mail-in form.

Moreover, the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship requirement for federal mail-in registrations was preempted by federal law. “The Federal Form provides a backstop,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority opinion. “No matter what procedural hurdles a State’s own form imposes, the Federal Form guarantees that a simple means of registering to vote in federal elections will be available no matter what procedural hurdles a State’s own form imposes.”

The League and other voting rights advocates who have joined the suit argue that Newby is both abusing his power by acting unilaterally and is granting states an unprecedented path to further suppress voter access by circumventing federal law.

“If Mr. Newby’s decision were to be found OK, that would make it so any state could require documentary proof to register to vote,” Lloyd Leonard, the League’s senior director of advocacy, told the Prospect in April. “This is really the battle over how much restriction there should be [in the federal form].” 

Reformers Sound Alarm: McDonnell Ruling Invites Corruption

Good-government advocates voiced alarm Monday that the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling to overturn former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s 11-count corruption conviction will pave the way for the wealthy and powerful to more brazenly wield influence in government.

“By saying that politicians can receive gifts in exchange for political favors, the Supreme Court has enshrined bribery into our politics and further empowered moneyed interests over ordinary citizens,” Zephyr Teachout, a corruption expert and Democratic congressional candidate in New York, declared in a statement.

The Court concluded Monday that the prosecutor had too broadly defined what constitutes bribery of a public official. McDonnell, a Republican, had been convicted of accepting gifts and loans worth more than $175,000, including a Rolex watch, designer clothes, lavish vacations, and use of a Ferrari sports car, from a businessman who had sought the governor’s help in promoting a dietary supplement.

In the Court’s unanimous opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the state prosecutor’s definition of bribery as overbroad, arguing that simply meeting with someone in exchange for a personal gift or campaign contribution is not an “official act” and therefore doesn’t constitute federal bribery. 

"There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” Roberts wrote in the opinion. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute. A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court."

Roberts warned that the lower court’s interpretation of what constitutes corruption is problematic. 

"Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,” the Roberts opinion stated. “The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns—whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm.”

The danger of defining corruption too broadly, Roberts added, is that “officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse."

The court vacated the convictions, which had been handed down by the United States Court of Appeals Fourth District, meaning a new trial may now be held to determine whether McDonnell’s actions constitute as an “official act” under the parameters defined in Monday’s ruling.

Though reform advocates decried the ruling, some election law experts said it struck the right balance. Richard Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine, called the ruling “sensible and courageous” on his blog.

“It is not enough that conduct is odious—the rules governing political action need to be clear enough so that politicians know the line between politics as usual and crossing the line,” Hasen wrote. “Prosecutors seek to make a name for themselves by going after corrupt politicians. But vague and broad laws criminalizing ordinary politics raise due process problems, selective prosecutions, and unfair treatment.”

But watchdogs argue that this was a clear-cut case of corruption, and that the ruling will only make it harder to hold corrupt politicians accountable to federal bribery laws.

“There was a corrupt bargain at work here, and the Supreme Court has disarmed the ability of the American people to police similar corruption in the future,” Fred Wertheimer, president of reform group Democracy 21, said in a statement. “This ruling opens the door to a ‘pay to play’ culture in government, so long as the gift-receiving official does not make a government decision or take an official government action. In essence, the Supreme Court has said it is perfectly legal for an officeholder to sell certain types of actions taken by the officeholder in return for large amounts of money going into the officeholder’s pocket.”

Reformers also say it underscores the urgent need for stricter state campaign-finance laws.

“This entire case could have been avoided if Virginia had taken the necessary and vital steps to prohibit the receipt of huge gifts from people who have business before the government,” said Tara Malloy, deputy executive director for the Campaign Legal Center, which filed an amicus brief in support of upholding McDonnell’s conviction.Given today’s ruling, states must make it a priority to protect and preserve the integrity of our democracy by passing strong gift laws and campaign-finance laws, both of which are designed to prevent bribery schemes from hatching in the first place.”

Yet, even as reformers voiced concern about the precedent created by such a narrow reading of corruption, they acknowledged that it could have been far worse. The court rejected McDonnell’s argument that the First Amendment constitutionally protects gifts and payments to public officials offered in exchange for policy influence.

“We think the case strongly shows that argument is incorrect,” says Brent Ferguson, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “[The ruling] certainly was not as broad as some thought it would be.”