Donovan's Silence Is No Sign Of Guilt

An accusation is much like lipstick on your collar: it cries out for an explanation; silence is deemed a confession; explanations are worse. You are guilty, guilty, guilty because of how things appear to your spouse.

Connecticut’s Speaker of the House, Chris Donovan knows all about this lose-lose situation. He’s running for Congress in the Fifth District. While he does so, the FBI is picking off campaign workers, one at a time. The feds are alleging violations of campaign financing laws, and perhaps worse.

When the allegations surfaced, Donovan reacted promptly, firing his campaign finance director the very day the young man was indicted by the feds. He also let other campaign workers close to the investigation go. He replaced these kids with other politicos, and he is pressing on with his campaign for Congress. He announced he was cooperating fully with inestigators.

That is about all that can be done, but it’s not enough to satisfy pundits in the state. Editorial writers and columnists are getting restless. His silence is damning, they say.

What nonsense.

Press accounts relay that campaign workers in Donovan’s office accepted funds from one or more confidential informants. It appears as though the funds were given to the congressional campaign by these wired "donors" in exchange for what appeared to be promises from the campaign staff that Donovan would use his influence as Speaker of the House to kill certain legislation. These donations may or may not have been properly reported.

If I understand it, then, the crime is that campaign workers promised influence for cash. The million dollar question is whether the "donors" got what they paid for. Did Donovan even know what these kids were doing? Should he have known?

If federal authorities thought there was a case against Donovan I am willing to bet they would have charged him with a crime, and not simply charged his campaign finance director. In order to prosecute a public official, especially a public official in the midst of a congressional campaign, approval must be sought from folks in Washington. You can bet this case has been vetted, analyzed, debated and approved by folks all the way up to the level of Deputy Attorney General. If there was a case against Donovan, we’d know about it by now.

A very real possibility in this case is that Donovan himself is a victim. Surrounded by young staffers with ambitions all their own, he counted on his staff to serve him. That some of these kids made promises they never intended to keep in exchange for raising funds for their man would hardly surprise. What thirty-something with an eye on a Washington office wouldn’t be tempted to bend the truth, to separate a fool and his money? So much of politics is, after all, the art of the scam.

Those calling for Donovan to say something more ought to stop and think: What if there is nothing more than he can say? What if he didn’t know what his staff did? What if he made the assumption anyone in an organization is required to make – that his staff did its job and followed the law? If those at the top of his office winked at the law’s requirements, then how was Donovan to know? He is not guilty merely because his employees allegedly played fast and loose with the law.

The mounting chorus of naysayers in the press all calling for Donovan to do more or die miss the point. A criminal prosecution is not a political campaign or an editorial board caucus. Federal prosecutors most likely have not told Donovan much about the allegations against his campaign staff. For all we know, the feds are still trying, and failing, to make a case against the congressional candidate. Perhaps Donovan has told us all he knows.

I realize the presumption of innocence is meaningless in the political process. Political discourse in this country is now so cheapened that allegation and loose association are mistaken for argument. So Donovan is guilty because members of his campaign staff have been accused. This sort of nonsense is what gives politicians a bad name.

But what, really, is Donovan to say? He fired the staff accused and suspected. He replaced them with new people. He is cooperating with federal investigators. That’s all he can do. Asking him to say more is like asking the guy with the lipstick on his collar to explain how it got there. Or maybe not. The lipsticked stained shirt does, after all, fit the man who wears it. What if there is no lipstick on Donovan’s collar? What if the telltale shirt does not fit him? Has anyone stopped to consider that an innocent man might just not have a thing to say?

In criminal prosecutions we grant the accused the right to remain silent in part because we know that a person accused cannot help but to look and sound guilty. Accuse me of a crime, and my defense often sounds like a mere excuse in the ears of my detractors. It does so even if it is true. Donovan’s silence is not proof of guilt. It is wise. Why is that so hard for the press to understand?

Ask federal prosecutors to lay bare their hand. Of course, they will say they can’t. Investigations are confidential. Tell that to Chris Donovan, whose hopes for higher office may well be a casualty of a desperate confidential informant giving cash to campaign staffers who never let their boss know what they were doing.


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