About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Checks and balances

About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Checks and balances
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)

By Mark Eaton

The detailed reporting by the Alexandria Journalism Project that was released by the Alexandria Times on February 13 about former Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille’s receipt, while in office, of $260,000 from local developer Jay Hoffman elicits mixed reactions and numerous questions. 

To briefly summarize, a 2012 deposit slip for a $260,000 deposit to Euille’s personal account and Hoffman’s check stub for the same amount were discovered in January 2017 in a file drawer in Euille’s former city hall office. City officials notified the FBI which, according to the story, has closed its investigation. We may not know all the facts, but what should we make of these events? 

As a legal matter, personal generosity has no limit. A donor may give any amount of money, subject to federal gift taxes. This is true even if the recipient holds elective office. 

The federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201, makes it a crime for a public official to “receive or accept anything of value” in exchange for being “influenced in the performance of any official act.” 

In June 2016, about six months before the discovery of the deposit slip and check stub, the Supreme Court, in McDonnell v. United States, an 8-0 decision, interpreted the statute in a way that made it more difficult to prosecute elected officials for bribery. 

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family had accepted more than $150,000 in luxury gifts, travel and loans from businessman Jonnie R. Williams, Sr. The Washington Post’s list of items Williams gave to the McDonnell family can found on their website. 

The Supreme Court held that an “official act” is a decision or action on a question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy that involves a specific exercise of formal governmental power. 

In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court held that arranging a meeting, consulting another official or hosting an event do not rise to the level of an “official act” under the federal bribery statute. Prior Supreme Court cases had established that merely because a matter was pending before a government official was not sufficient proof that something related to the matter was an “official act.” 

The AJP report in the Times detailed the numerous times that Hoffman projects came before Euille, as mayor, and City Council. The McDonnell case, and the numerous instances when City Council acted on Hoffman matters may explain why, thus far, there has been no prosecution in the Euille-Hoffman situation. There may be no way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt which “official act” by Euille the $260,000 influenced, or if the money influenced any “official act” by Euille. 

With a few disappointing exceptions such as James Comey’s investigation of Hillary Clinton or Robert Hur’s investigation of Joe Biden, prosecutors do not talk about cases they decide not to bring. An explanation about the decision to decline to prosecute in this situation is probably unlikely. 

The McDonnell and Euille situations are not equivalent. The golf outings, wedding catering, and Rolex watch accepted by the McDonnell family were luxury treats. Euille, who did not respond to my invitation to comment, may have simply needed money and received help from a long-time friend. 

Alexandrians may never obtain a complete understanding of what went on between Euille and Hoffman. Even if the public had a right to that understanding, it would probably be difficult to ascertain how Alexandria’s development history would have been different if Euille had not accepted money from Hoffman. Mayors do few official things unilaterally; Euille was one of seven City Council votes. 

Still, the Euille-Hoffman situation is, as high school students say, “Not a good look.” The money transfer creates negative inferences about purchased access or worse; however, inferences are not facts. The situation also reinforces cynical assumptions that local officeholders are corrupt. 

Others may react to the Euille-Hoffman situation by asking whether the essentially full-time job of mayor is appropriately compensated at, according to the city’s website, $41,500 per year. 

Baseball great Shoeless Joe Jackson was reportedly approached by a boy after allegations surfaced that Jackon and some of his Chicago White Sox teammates intentionally lost the 1919 World Series to benefit gamblers and themselves. The boy reportedly said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” 

Many Alexandrians identify with the boy’s disappointment. Even so, the takeaway may be that terrible optics by public officials do not automatically create legal consequences. 

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at aboutalexandria.substack.com.