In unanimous ruling, Supreme Court clears former Virginia governor
Monday's ruling vacating the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell could change the way federal prosecutors approach bribery cases against politicians.
Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out Republican former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell's corruption convictions in a ruling that could hem in federal prosecutors as they go after bribery charges against other politicians.
The court ruled 8-0 in overturning McDonnell's conviction for accepting $177,000 in luxury gifts and sweetheart loans for him and his wife from a wealthy Richmond businessman seeking to promote a dietary supplement. The court found that McDonnell's conduct did not constitute a criminal act under federal bribery law.
McDonnell was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to two years in prison but had remained free pending the outcome of his appeal.
The issue before the court was whether the gifts and money were part of an unlawful arrangement in which a sitting governor, in return for accepting them, employed the power of his office to benefit businessman Jonnie Williams.
The court ruled that the prosecution's broad interpretation of the bribery law made it unclear whether McDonnell was convicted of conduct that was actually illegal. The court sent the case back to lower courts to determine if there is sufficient evidence for a jury to convict McDonnell. He could still face a new trial.
Under the court's new interpretation of what "official acts" can be constituted as bribery, "setting up a meeting, calling another public official or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an official act," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.
Roberts stressed that the ruling was prompted by overzealous federal prosecutors rather than any sympathy for McDonnell.
"There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ballgowns. It is instead with the broad legal implications of the government's boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute."
In their successful appeal, McDonnell's lawyers had argued that federal prosecutors had taken too expansive a view of federal bribery law by criminalizing the kind of political favors that politicians do routinely.
The decision could limit the type of cases U.S. prosecutors could bring against politicians in the future by requiring that any action taken in return for a bribe be more than ordinary moves such as arranging a meeting between a benefactor and a government official.
McDonnell's lawyers had contended his conduct did not constitute "official action" in exchange for a thing of value, as required for conviction under federal bribery law. Prosecutors argued thatMcDonnell took official acts in return for the gifts and money, such as arranging meetings, which they portrayed as a classic tale of political corruption.
McDonnell, 62, was found guilty of 11 corruption counts including conspiracy, bribery and extortion for taking the gifts and loans in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement called Anatabloc made by Williams' company Star Scientific. A federal appeals court later upheld the conviction.
The case was a rare instance of the nation's highest court reviewing a high-level public official's criminal conviction.
McDonnell is a former Republican Party rising star who served as governor from 2010 to 2014 and once was considered as a possible U.S. vice presidential candidate. His wife, Maureen, was convicted in a separate trial and given a one-year sentence but remained free while pursuing a separate appeal.
Prosecutors described for jurors the luxurious lifestyle the McDonnells lived, despite being heavily in debt, thanks to Williams including vacations, designer clothing and shoes, a $6,500 Rolex watch, use of a Ferrari sports car, $15,000 for their daughter's wedding, golf outings and more. The trial also exposed fissures in their marriage.
Williams wanted McDonnell to press researchers at Virginia state universities to conduct studies that could help win U.S. regulatory approval for Anatabloc. McDonnell orchestrated meetings for Williams with state officials and used the governor's mansion in Richmond for a product launch for new supplement.
Prosecutors granted Williams immunity in exchange for his cooperation in their pursuit of theMcDonnells.
During the April 27 oral argument, U.S. Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben told the justices that throwing out McDonnell's conviction and providing politicians more latitude to accept gifts in exchange for certain actions would be a "recipe for corruption."