The media coverage of this week’s announcement that federal prosecutors have charged former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, with illegally accepting gifts from a wealthy Richmond area businessman have largely focused on what the Commonwealth’s first family may have given in return. To be sure, the question of whether and how these gifts corrupted the state government is an important one, and the effect on a man once considered a potential 2016 Presidential candidate is a significant political story.
But the story of how the allegations against Governor McDonnell first surfaced is also a cautionary tale about the vulnerabilities that can lead prosecutors to the evidence they need to bring down rich and powerful people. During his tenure at the Virginia gubernatorial mansion, chef Todd Schneider kept records and photographs of a variety of things he viewed as suspicious. When Schneider was accused of wrongdoing involving his outside catering company’s relationship with the state – allegations that proved to be unfounded – Schneider revealed to prosecutors all of the documents and photographs he had that suggested corruption on the part of the Governor and his family. The indictments announced this week are the product, at least in part, of that treasure trove of carefully preserved incriminating evidence.
The defense in this case will likely be that gifts were accepted by no favors were granted in exchange, and that may be a winning strategy but there is also a lesson here. Corporate officers and public officials need to understand that, when they engage in behavior that comes close to crossing the line between proper and improper, their acts need to be explained and not kept private. They also need to understand that leaders are often judged by and held to a higher standard of conduct. From the mail room on up, employees expect the most from their leaders. Anything less than that may look suspicious and can literally turn into a federal case.
This saga is by no means the first in which a lowly employee who is discharged or accused of wrongdoing becomes a whistleblower that leads to headline-grabbing criminal charges against a company or a political figure. But it is a good reminder that those who cut corners or even commit crimes in organizations are vulnerable to the evidence collected by others in that organization.