In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is under federal investigation for campaign contributions from his 2013 run for governor and for what investigators consider “suspicious personal finances,” possibly related to foreign donations from Chinese billionaire Wang Wenliang. McAuliffe was reportedly “shocked” by the investigation, assured the public that the contributions were lawful, and agreed to cooperate.
He’s not alone. In March, the online news organization AL.com revealed that Alabama’s Republican governor, Robert Bentley, had been recorded having a sexually explicit conversation reportedly with his chief adviser. The governor acknowledged “inappropriate communication,” but denied having an affair and insisted he did nothing illegal. The Alabama Ethics Commission is investigating possible criminal wrongdoing. Republican state lawmakers are considering whether, and how, to remove the governor on charges of corruption and willful neglect of duty.
Ironically, the governor won largely because of his squeaky clean reputation. He was a deacon at his church and a noted physician before entering politics. He was reelected governor in 2014 by the highest margin for an open seat in the state’s history.
The governor is in crowded company in Alabama, where two other political branches have also recently been scrutinized. Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has been charged with violating judicial ethics. The speaker of the Alabama House is being tried for corruption.
Beyond Alabama, we’ve seen investigations in recent state scandals, and even resignations, in Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.
My new book, “Institutional Effects of Executive Scandal,” helps us understand these and other scandals — how long they last, whether they bring down politicians and what happens in the aftermath. I examined 40 years of scandals from 1972 to 2012. Based on studying all of these scandals, six general lessons stand out.
1. The top of the ticket almost always survives
Most top-ranking executive leaders survive political scandals while in office. That’s especially true when the prospect of impeachment is low — usually because one party controls both the executive and legislative branches — and pre-scandal popularity was relatively high. For instance, although there’s been a lot of talk about impeaching Bentley, he’s still there — in part because of his strong ties to other Republicans.
But Rebekah Caldwell Mason — the adviser with whom Bentley was romantically linked — isn’t. That fits the general pattern that while the chief executive survives, staff, Cabinet members and nominees for Cabinet posts often don’t.
2. The scandal usually involves money
In almost half of the scandals I examined, governors were charged with personal financial wrongdoing. That might include embezzling funds, taking bribes, or skipping out on state or federal taxes.
For instance, in 2007 Gov. George Ryan of Illinois went to prison for corruption and obstruction of justice, after officials in his administration misbehaved in several ways. They took bribes in exchange for driver’s licenses (the “licenses-for-bribes” scandal) and funneled the money to Ryan’s campaign. They steered state contracts to his cronies, who then gave him cash and gifts. And they tried to cover it all up, including firing investigators.
In another case, Gov. David Paterson of New York falsely testified under oath during an ethics investigation in 2010 into his acceptance of five free tickets to Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, for which he was eventually fined $62,125.
3. Governors usually stonewall
Stonewalling means the individual implicated tried to limit access to the truth, obscure the facts, or suppress information about a scandal. When governors are accused of misdeeds, they’re more likely to obfuscate than to tell the truth, as they try to hold on to political power.
For instance, when a state ethics commission started investigating Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber for allowing his fiancée to financially benefit from her quasi-”first lady” status, Kitzhaber at first refused to resign, allegedly ordered his assistant to delete thousands of emails, and tried to limit inquiry into her financial role in his administration.
4. The more serious the scandal, the less likely the truth
Governors are less likely to “come clean” when allegations against them are more serious, threatening their elected positions or presenting serious legal consequences.
What’s more, the more institutional power governors have — say, the ability to appoint powerful officials or veto line items in a budget — the more likely they are to stonewall.
For instance, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached, charged and eventually convicted of allegedly offering to “sell” the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama to the highest bidder. Immediately after he was arrested, the governor made the rounds of morning news programs proclaiming his innocence.
5. Governors charged with scandals try hard to change the subject
State executives charged in scandals generally start talking about education, welfare, children’s issues, tourism, and law and order. Rarely does this “pivot list” include moral issues, like religion or family.
For instance, after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was accused (but later exonerated) of coordinating with his staff and state officials — some of whom were eventually fired — to create traffic jams to get back at local officials who hadn’t supported his run for governor, he began talking about law and order issues and a plan to reduce taxes.
6. Party competition increases the chance of stonewalling
When a state has competitive elections, or when different parties hold the executive and legislative branches, state officials are more likely to stonewall, hoping to limit the political damage by releasing as little as possible. They don’t want to risk losing political power, agenda control or legislative battles.
If history is any guide, Alabama’s embattled officials will survive their scandals by remaining in office, as most (though not all) do. They’ll likely attempt to deflect the charges publicly and then change the subject to talk about something politically popular.
Scandals aren’t the end of our political system; they’re a test of it, and an opportunity to correct course. Usually, after these crises, the system stays in good health even while responding in predictable ways. For instance, after Oregon’s Kitzhaber was accused of entangling his fiancée’s work with official government business, Oregon passed legislation requiring public record audits and expanding financial disclosure requirements. One law requires the governor’s partner to fill out income disclosures and another calls for an audit of state records requests, an issue in the paper trail of the governor’s fiancée and her work for the state.
Although human nature is inherently corruptible and those in power are often tempted to take advantage of their positions, the good news is that the system can root out these issues and correct itself. The legal system goes to work ferreting out corruption and malfeasance, as has happened several times in Illinois.
Of course, no system is perfect. A governor or president may commit serious misdeeds — lying, cheating, stealing — and survive attempts to get rid of him. But sooner or later, voters will sit as the final jury.
Rottinghaus is a professor of political science at the University of Houston and author of “Inside Texas Politics” (forthcoming from Oxford University Press, 2017).