Ex-Governor McDonnell Wins at U.S. Supreme Court on Corruption Conviction

  • McDonnell of Virginia’s bribery conviction is set aside
  • Silver of New York says his appeal boosted by court decision

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell speaks to members of the media in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on April 27, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court set aside former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s bribery conviction in a ruling that might make it harder to prosecute public officials for corruption.

The justices unanimously said the jury instructions improperly let McDonnell be convicted for setting up meetings and taking other informal actions on behalf of a supporter. The ruling left open the possibility that McDonnell could be retried.

The case stemmed from more than $175,000 in cash and gifts McDonnell and his wife received from Jonnie Williams, a businessman who was trying to get a state university to conduct important clinical tests on a dietary supplement.

The justices didn’t reach the biggest question in the case: whether McDonnell provided enough in return to warrant prosecution. Chief Justice John Roberts, however, faulted a federal trial judge for refusing to tell jurors that it wasn’t enough that McDonnell arranged meetings and hosted events to promote the supplement.

Roberts said the government’s interpretation of federal corruption laws risked making routine service by government officials into a crime and would lead them to wonder whether they could respond to even commonplace requests for help.

"There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be more than that," Roberts wrote. "But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute."

Two-Year Sentence

A federal appeals court had upheld the conviction, and McDonnell, 62, was facing a two-year prison sentence.

The ruling comes in the wake of corruption convictions of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the state’s former Senate majority leader Dean Skelos. Federal judges have let both men stay out of prison until the Supreme Court ruled in the McDonnell case.

Steven Molo and Joel Cohen, lawyers for Silver, said Monday the decision will be "central" to his appeal.

The ruling “makes clear that federal government has gone too far in prosecuting state officials for conduct that is part of the everyday functioning of those in elected office," the lawyers said in a statement.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan said the conduct of both men "falls squarely within" the contours of the court’s decision. A lawyer for Skelos didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘Official Action’

The pivotal statute makes it a felony to agree to take “official action” in exchange for money, campaign contributions or other gifts. The two sides in McDonnell’s case disagreed about exactly what constitutes “official action.”

McDonnell’s lawyers said prosecutors must show that an official tried to influence a governmental decision. The Obama administration said the statute covers a broader array of acts, including arranging meetings and hosting events. The court disagreed with that view, saying meetings and events alone aren’t enough.

"What the court is saying is if the government wants to impose the ultimate sanction of convicting someone of a felony and taking away their liberty, then the rules have to be exceedingly clear and cannot be left to interpretation and shouldn’t rely on the exercise of unbounded prosecutorial discretion," said Andrew Wise, a criminal defense lawyer at Miller & Chevalier in Washington, who wasn’t involved in the case.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which prosecuted McDonnell, said it was reviewing the decision.

‘Heartfelt Gratitude’

Wise said the case will be returned to the appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, to determine whether a conviction could have been achieved if the jury instructions were in line with the Supreme Court’s decision.

The former governor expressed "heartfelt gratitude" for the ruling.

“It is my hope that this matter will soon be over and that my family and I can begin to rebuild our lives," he said in a statement.

Private Plane Flights

McDonnell, once seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate, was convicted in 2014 alongside his wife, Maureen. Prosecutors said Williams showered the cash-strapped couple with gifts that included private plane flights, golf trips and a $20,000 shopping spree for Maureen, a former cheerleader for the Washington Redskins football team.

Prosecutors said that, in exchange, the governor promoted Williams’s Anatabloc supplement. McDonnell was accused of pressing state medical schools to conduct clinical tests needed for its federal approval as a drug. Prosecutors said McDonnell also encouraged a subordinate to include the product in the state’s health plan and hosted an event at the governor’s mansion to mark Anatabloc’s introduction for public sale.

The medical schools declined to conduct the tests, and the product was never included in the health plan.

The Supreme Court last year blocked McDonnell’s prison sentence while the justices considered whether to take up the case.

The case is McDonnell v. United States, 15-474.

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