Governors Gone Wild: A Recent History

NPR icon by Liz Halloran
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Steve Helber

In the annals of corrupt governors, former Virginia GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell's place remains to be seen.

He was indicted along with his wife Tuesday for allegedly taking illegal gifts, vacations and loans while in office, but the governor says he's innocent.

Either way, in light of the allegations against McDonnell, the first governor in Virginia history to face felony charges, we thought we'd take a look back at other examples of gubernatorial bad behavior in recent decades that resulted in fines, probation or even a prison stint.

It's safe to say that Illinois has set a standard that's hard to match — three governors convicted of felonies since the late 1980s, beginning with Democrat Daniel Walker, who went to prison in a savings and loan scandal.

THE INCARCERATED

Rod Blagojevich, Democrat of Illinois

For the crime of attempting to sell President Obama's former U.S. Senate seat, Blagojevich was found guilty in 2011 of 17 of 24 federal charges against him. He's currently serving a 14-year prison sentence. Eleven of the charges stemmed from the seat-selling scheme. The convictions came on retrial, and after he was impeached.

Quote: "I caused it all. I'm not blaming anyone. I was governor, and I should have known better. I am just so incredibly sorry."

Edward DiPrete, Republican of Rhode Island

DiPrete was indicted in 1994, along with his son, accused of taking close to $300,000 in bribes from contractors in exchange for state contracts. In exchange for leniency for his son, DiPrete pleaded guilty before trial to 18 charges of corruption that included bribery and extortion. He was sentenced to one year in a minimum security prison — the first governor to go to prison from the little state known for big corruption.

Quote: "The pressures of raising money for campaign spending obviously clouded my perspective. However, I can assure every citizen of Rhode Island that you received the very best."

Edwin Edwards, Democrat of Louisiana

Here's how the New Orleans Times-Picayune characterized Edwards' 2000 conviction on 17 counts of extortion, mail fraud and money-laundering: "Investigators spent three decades chasing Gov. Edwin Edwards. They finally got their man in 2000 ..." That's when a jury convicted him of extorting nearly $3 million from companies that applied for casino licenses. The four-term governor, 72 years old at the time, received a 10-year sentence, his 35-year-old wife at his side. When he emerged from prison in 2011, he was accompanied by his new wife, nearly five decades his junior. They welcomed a baby last year.

When convicted, Edwards quoted a Chinese proverb: " 'If you sit by a river long enough, the dead bodies of your enemies will float by you.' I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough and here comes my body."

Arch Moore Jr., Republican of West Virginia

Federal prosecutors in 1990 were ready to try Moore on charges of extortion, mail fraud, tax fraud and obstruction of justice. They stemmed from a nearly $600,000 payment he extorted from a coal operator in return for a refund of millions from the state's black lung fund for miners; for filing false tax returns; and for a vote-buying scheme. Facing 36 years in prison and fines of $1.2 million, Moore, who also served as governor in the 1970s, made a deal. He got a prison sentence of just under six years and a $170,000 fine.

Quote from 2009: "I never been ... I'm not going to use the word 'sorry.' But there's never been a day I didn't enjoy public service."

John Rowland, Republican of Connecticut

In 2005, Rowland pleaded guilty to a single felony count of "conspiracy to steal honest service" after a corruption scandal. Once considered a rising national party star, Rowland admitted illegally taking trips and vacations to Las Vegas, Vermont, and Florida, and improvements to his lake cabin. He served 10 months in prison.

Quote: "I let my pride get in my way. I am ashamed to be here today, and I accept full responsibility for my actions."

George Ryan, Republican of Illinois

Lauded for suspending the state's death penalty after investigations revealed its flaws, Ryan by 2006 was convicted of 18 felony corruption counts for racketeering, mail fraud and tax fraud — largely related to selling government licenses and contracts as a public official. He was also convicted of making false statements to the FBI. Ryan was released from prison in 2013 after serving a 6 1/2-year sentence. Seventy-nine state workers and business people were also charged in the investigation.

Quote: "I believe this decision today is not in accordance with the kind of public service that I provided to the people of Illinois over 40 years."

CONVICTED, BUT DID NOT SERVE PRISON TIME

Mike Easley, Democrat of North Carolina

A two-year state and federal probe into allegations that Easley took free flights, cars and vacations, made questionable real estate deals, and created a job for his wife at a state university led to his guilty plea in 2010. Easley, the first governor in state history to admit to a felony, copped to violating six campaign laws, all related to a $1,600 helicopter flight with a supporter. No time served, minimal fine paid.

Quote: "I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does. The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me, and I take responsibility for what has occurred in this incident."

Guy Hunt, Republican of Alabama

The state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Hunt in 1993 was convicted of violating state ethics law by helping himself to $200,000 donated to a tax-exempt fund for his inauguration. He was kicked out of office, got five years' probation, and was ordered to pay a $211,000 fine. Hunt got a state pardon in 1990.

Quote: "For a year and a half now practically the whole emphasis of that office has been to try to find something on me. They found nothing whatsoever as far as state government has been concerned; it's been run honestly and aboveboard."

Bill Janklow, Republican of South Dakota

After his second stint as governor, Janklow, who had amassed speeding tickets in the past, was convicted in 2003 of second degree manslaughter for crashing into and killing a motorcyclist in rural South Dakota. Janklow, serving in Congress as the time, was sentenced to 100 days in the county jail and three years' probation.

Quote from a 1999 speech as governor to the state Legislature: "Bill Janklow speeds when he drives — shouldn't, but he does. When he gets the ticket he pays it, but if someone told me I was going to jail for two days for speeding, my driving habits would change."

J. Fife Symington III, Republican of Arizona

In 1997, Symington was convicted of seven felony counts of bank fraud, making false financial statements and extortion, much of it related to a failing real estate business. He had faced 21 counts. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison, but in 1999 his conviction was overturned; in 2001, President Clinton gave him a pardon.

Quote: Upon resigning after the verdict, he said, "I've never been one to linger and I don't intend to now. My lot is to offer best wishes and full support, to say thank you and move on."

Jim Guy Tucker, Democrat of Arkansas

A jury in 1996 found the former governor guilty of fraud and conspiracy in a Whitewater-related scheme that involved Clinton family friends James and Susan McDougal and the engineering of about $3 million in fraudulent loans. Tucker was sentenced to four years' probation and spared prison, in part because of a serious liver ailment. He was also ordered to pay $294,000 back to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Quote: When asked if he thought he'd broken the law, he answered, "I do not."

David Lee Walters, Democrat of Oklahoma

In a 1993 deal that infuriated Oklahomans, Walters pleaded guilty to one of the eight felony counts he faced for allegedly violating campaign contribution laws, perjury, and conspiracy to hide donations. The New York Times quoted a juror who contended that prosecutors traded "a Shetland pony for eight thoroughbreds" to avoid what promised to be a long, nasty trial.

Quote: "I'm somewhat of a fighter, and every bone in my body said to fight."

Bob Taft, Republican of Ohio

Taft, of the storied GOP family, became in 2005 the state's first governor to be convicted of criminal charges. He pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor ethics counts for failing to report gifts of more than 50 golf outings, dinners and other largesse. He was ordered to pay a $4,000 fine and write an apology to Ohioans.

Quote: "As governor, I have made it clear that I expect all public employees to follow both the letter and the spirit of the ethics law and have demanded no less from myself. I have personally failed to live up to those expectations, as well as the expectations of the public, and I am disappointed in myself."

Roger Wilson, Democrat of Missouri

In April 2012, long after he had left office, Wilson pleaded guilty to illegally shifting money to make political donations; on the same day, he was also indicted by federal prosecutors. He faced a $2,000 fine and a year in prison; he was ordered to pay the fine and given two years' probation.

Quote: "There are no excuses. I made a mistake. I apologize for that mistake and I deeply regret it."

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