Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's conviction on corruption charges was overturned Monday.
WASHINGTON (Talk Media News) The U.S. Supreme Court Monday unanimously threw out the federal corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and reined in what it called the “boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
The decision could make it tougher for federal prosecutors to bring corruption charges against public officials.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion, weighing heavily on what constitutes an “official act” under federal corruption law and whether gifts influence a public official who received them in such acts.
“In sum, an ‘official act’ is a decision or action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” Roberts wrote. “Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit that definition of an official act.
“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 ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
McDonnell, once a rising political star in the Republican party, and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of federal corruption charges in 2014 on charges stemming from taking gifts worth more than $175,000 from Jonnie Williams Sr., then chief executive of Star Scientific Inc., a dietary supplement maker.
A jury found the McDonnells guilty, and a federal appeals court upheld their convictions. The Supreme Court last year allowed the former governor to stay out of prison — he was sentenced to two years — while it decided whether to hear his appeal, and his wife’s case has been on hold pending the Supreme Court decision.
The Supreme Court noted the U.S. Justice Department had argued McDonnell agreed to “legitimize, promote and seek research studies” of Star’s drug by state universities.
McDonnell appeared at events to try to persuade universities to conduct research studies, hosted a luncheon for the supplement’s launch at the governor’s mansion and help set up meetings between Williams and state health officials.
“But, conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,” Roberts wrote. “The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns — whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm.
“The Government’s position could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships if the union had given a campaign contribution in the past or the homeowners invited the official to join them on their annual outing to the ballgame. Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.”
The court ordered lower courts to reconsider the corruption case in light of Monday’s decision to determine whether McDonnell should be retried or if charges against him should be dismissed.
In a statement Monday, McDonnell, 62, expressed gratitude for the Supreme Court ruling and proclaimed his innocence anew.
“From the outset, I strongly asserted my innocence before God and under the law,” he said. “I have not, and would not, betray the sacred trust the people of Virginia bestowed upon me during 22 years in elected office.
“Over this past 40 months, God strengthened and comforted me through the love and many support of friends, family, and even strangers, through His abundant, miraculous and amazing grace, and through the eternal truths of His holy word,” added McDonnell, a devout Catholic.
A Justice Department spokesman declined comment Monday.