WASHINGTON (AP/WAVY) — A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in a ruling that could make it harder for prosecutors to bring corruption cases against elected officials.
McDonnell had been found guilty in 2014 of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement. The gifts included nearly $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories for McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, a $6,500 engraved Rolex watch, $15,000 in catering for their daughter’s wedding, and free family vacations and golf trips for their boys. Williams also provided three loans totaling $120,000.
McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison, but was allowed to remain free while the justices weighed his appeal.
The justices voted to narrow the scope of a law that bars public officials from taking gifts in exchange for “official action,” saying it does not cover routine courtesies like setting up meetings or hosting events for constituents.
The high court took no position on whether prosecutors can try McDonnell again. The case now returns to lower courts to decide that question.
The official order of the court states:
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. A more limited interpretation of the term “official act” leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.”
McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, also was convicted of corruption and was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Her appeal has been on hold while the Supreme Court considered her husband’s case.
“What the court is telling us, they don’t like overly broad laws that allow prosecutors boundless desecration to charge people with crimes,” says Norfolk attorney Hunter Sims, with Kaufman and Canoles.
The court ruled, “setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an official act.”
The court offered this to further describe “official acts:”
McDonnell would have personally initiated the research study for Jonnie Williams’ product Anatabloc in the state labs in exchange for $170,000 in gifts and loans. If McDonnell had used his position to exert pressure to do so, or if he advised another official knowing the advice he gave would form the basis for an official act to help Williams.
McDonnell argues none of that happened, and he should never have been charged in the first place. The High Court states these elements need to be part of jury instructions to find someone guilty of “official act” corruption.
“If I had to pick right now what the Fourth Circuit would do… They will send it back, and say, ‘You are going to have another trial,’ under which the Supreme Court says is the correct jury instruction,” said appellate court expert Steve Emmert, who closely watches the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Emmert points out that it is possible for the court to dismiss the indictment if they don’t find anything that rises to the level of a corruption official act, and it is possible that the government chooses not to retry McDonnell. A new trial would be at the District Court level, where it was before.
Sims says that will be the trouble if the Government retries the case.
“Once the decision came out that the schools would not test Anatabloc, Governor McDonnell never followed up by saying, ‘Why have you done this?’ Or, ‘I order you to reverse your decision,’ or, ‘Please reconsider it.’ He never did any of that, and he accepted the decision [not to have Anatabloc tested in the State Labs as Jonnie Williams wanted] of the government official at that point.”
A group of lawmakers and former attorneys general held a press conference Monday afternoon on court’s ruling. Six former Virginia attorneys general were part of a group who filed an amicus brief in March urging the Supreme court to rule in favor of McDonnell.
The group, which included former Attorney General Mark Earley, all reiterated Monday that they believed the definition of what constitutes an official act to be too broad.
Earley said, “The kind of thing that Bob McDonnell did were not criminal, and were not within any commonsense definition of official acts. There was never any quid pro quo.”
He added, “I’m delighted today to see a united Supreme Court on something that is so important to the democratic process, and so important to Gov. McDonnell and his family.”
U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) also signed the amicus brief, and weighed-in on the Supreme Court’s ruling Monday:
I applaud the Supreme Court for seeing the Texas law for what it is – an attempt to effectively ban abortion and undermine a woman’s right to make her own health care choices. This ruling is a major win for women and families across the country, as well as the fight to expand reproductive freedom for all.
“The Texas law is quite similar to arbitrary and unnecessary rules that were imposed on Virginia women after I left office as Governor. I’m proud that we were able to successfully fight off such ‘TRAP’ regulations during my time in state office. I have always believed these sort of rules are an unwarranted effort to deprive women of their constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy.”
The justices’ decision will likely have impacts on the corruption case in Norfolk involving city treasurer Anthony Burfoot.
Burfoot’s case has been on hold until the Supreme Court makes a decision about McDonnell’s case.
Court documents say Burfoot took nearly a half-million dollars in cash and gifts in exchange for political favors during a four-year period. He was indicted on the charges in January.
Burfoot’s attorney, Andrew Sacks, has said his case is related to McDonnell’s case, which also centers on the question of what constitutes an official act.
Sacks says a favorable ruling for the former governor will pave the way for the scheduling of Burfoot’s own federal trial.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.