The good news: PA Treasurer Rob McCord wasn't trying to line his pockets, just to extort campaign contributors
If you're wondering why Pennsylvania State Treasurer Rob McCord is smiling, it could be because the picture was taken before the feds started bugging him about his fund-raising tactics in last year's Democratic gubernatorial primary. Here he's seen voting in the primary, May 20, 2014. (Actually, he didn't have much to smile about that day either.)
"When raising campaign cash last year [for a run for governor], prosecutors say, former Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord had a simple and crude message: If he lost his bid for governor, he'd still be treasurer for two years. And you didn't want to be an enemy of the treasurer."
— from "McCord charged with extortion in campaign
shakedown," in the Philadelphia Inquirer
shakedown," in the Philadelphia Inquirer
How simple and to the point! Just as there was an upside for prospective campaign contributors being invited to kick in to Rob's gubernatorial campaign -- the chance of winding up with a friend in the statehouse, there was this other side, a downside, if you will. It was just simple, you know, pointing out. Was it or was it not true that Rob would still be state treasurer for two more years? If the pitch really spelled out that part about you not wanting to be an enemy of the treasurer, that might have crossed some invisible line. But shouldn't the pitchee have been able to figure out that part for himself? Facts are facts, after all.
Now, can you believe prosecutors are calling this simple bit of pointing out extortion? Facts are facts, after all.
The one thing I might fault here, apart from that possible over-explicitness about the implications of making an enemy of the treasurer, which really is kind of tacky, is that our Rob thought he could get away with it. I imagine this sort of thing goes on all the time when elections are held in, say, heavily tribal cultures, where the local warlord or his people like to be sure that constituents understand, in deciding how to vote, the advantages of having their warlord as their friend, in terms of their future prosperity, not to mention the continued good health of their women and children and goats and such.
But here we're talking about for gosh sakes Pennsylvania, and here in the World's Greatest Democracy Inc. we like to think our elections don't work that way. Especially where the candidate doesn't have the kind of muscle to keep the people he's strong-arming from going whining to the authorities.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeremy Roebuck and Angela Couloumbis report, the charges that were filed yesterday against Treasurer Rob came "days after his abrupt resignation." The charging documents, they tell us,
recounted how he allegedly shook down the managing partner of a Philadelphia law firm and a Western Pennsylvania property-management company for campaign contributions by threatening to disrupt their business with the state.Ooh, it's on tape! Bad luck, Rob! Wearing a wire isn't something the warlord's constituents often do, if only because they don't really have anyone to play the tape for. In this case the FBI seems to have been listening, and the office of the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in Harrisburg, which filed yesterday's indictments. (The U.S. attorney himself, Peter Smith, recused himself from the case "because he once worked for McCord at the Treasury." The case is being handled by First Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis C. Pfannenschmidt.)
"It's sort of shocking to me who's coming through and who's not" for donations, McCord told one of his targets in a conversation apparently recorded by federal agents or cooperating witnesses, the records show. "At the very least, I'm still gonna be the freakin' treasurer."
The documents didn't offer details about the origin of the FBI investigation, name his alleged victims, or say whether they gave him the money he sought.Being, as I point out from time to time, a nuts 'n' bolts kind of person, I often like to much around in the details. In this case they're not pretty. Back last spring Rob was one of the four contenders in a four-way battle for the Democratic nomination
But they added substance to what for days had been speculation and, for the first time, offered an unvarnished glimpse of the threats and conduct that last week toppled the 55-year-old Democrat from office.
McCord, a former venture capitalist from Bryn Mawr, apologized Friday in a video statement released by his Philadelphia lawyer, Robert Welsh. The former treasurer also said he would plead guilty. His plea hearing is set for Feb. 17.
In a statement Monday, FBI Special Agent in Charge Edward J. Hanko, who heads the Philadelphia division, said: "The citizens of the commonwealth expect and deserve public officials who perform their duties free of deceit, favoritism, bias, self-enrichment, concealment and conflict of interest."
The charges stem from McCord's bid last spring to raise money for the four-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor.
At the time, Tom Wolf had become the unexpected front-runner, having launched a series of early and successful television ads, and after pouring millions of his own money into the campaign.
McCord spent $2 million of his own on his candidacy but wasn't getting traction. By spring, he appeared desperate for an edge, according to snippets of his conversations. Those details and others were outlined in a "joint statement of facts" about the case that McCord and prosecutors signed Thursday and made public Monday.
In April and May, it said, he targeted a Philadelphia law firm for a $25,000 campaign donation. Pennsylvania law places no limits on individual campaign contributions.
One of McCord's neighbors was a lawyer at the firm, prosecutors allege, and the treasurer had urged the lawyer to "browbeat" the firm's managing partner - a financial backer of then-Gov. Tom Corbett - into allowing the lawyer to make a sizable contribution to McCord.
In one April 21 conversation, McCord coached the attorney to tell the managing partner that he could hurt the firm, which has multiple state contracts, including with the Treasury, if it did not make a sizable contribution:
"And that's fine, but you also run a law firm, so if you are not going to hedge your bet, don't think that I am so stupid that I am not going to read you the riot act down the road. You know what I mean?"
In a conversation with the managing partner a week later, McCord said that letting the lawyer be a conduit for the donation would shield the firm from exposure. The firm could then "somehow give credit" to the lawyer for the contribution.
"We're all free and clear, nobody's in trouble, and you guys have been there for me," McCord told the managing partner, the documents show.
Around the same time, McCord directed one of his campaign "bundlers" - who solicit contributions from friends, business associates, and others - to squeeze a Western Pennsylvania property management firm for $100,000.
In a telephone conversation with the bundler, McCord complained that the principals of the property management firm were "rich as gods," and urged the bundler to call them and say things that "I don't want to say."
The firm had received benefits and other incentives from the state that were approved in part by McCord.
The documents say McCord counseled the bundler to "get them learning" that as treasurer, McCord was a "fiscal watchdog" - the inference being that he could stop state benefits from flowing to the company.
Aside from managing the state's money, the treasurer is a key investor of state dollars. McCord told the bundler to convey that the campaign contributions didn't need to be in the company's name.
"You can kind of say, 'Look, you guys, Rob will be fine with the checks not coming in your name. I can tell him that this is from you,' " McCord admitted telling the bundler. "But what doesn't work is you turning a friend into an enemy by breaking your word."
The maximum penalty for each extortion count is 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, though McCord would be likely to face a far lighter sentence.
STILL, AS ROB'S LAWYER POINTED OUT --
To me this doesn't look at all pretty. However, the lawyer, who you'll recall is named Robert Welsh, had a happier way of looking at it.
Welsh stressed Monday that McCord was not looking to enrich himself. He also said McCord immediately confessed after being confronted by agents in December.Well then, that's okay, I guess.
"I think it's very important to examine the facts of what he's pleading to here," Welsh said. "It's not putting millions of dollars in his own pocket by selling his office. He's pleading guilty to crossing the line in fund-raising."