Imprisoned ex-lawmaker seeks relief after McDonnell ruling

Artist: Bill Hennessy

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A former Virginia lawmaker serving a nearly 10-year prison sentence for a bribery and extortion conviction hopes the recent Supreme Court ruling in ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell‘s corruption case could set him free.

Phil Hamilton asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a motion filed this week to let him submit a new application for relief in light of the McDonnell ruling in June. The high court overturned McDonnell’s conviction, saying the former governor’s actions — while distasteful — didn’t cross the line into illegal conduct.

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Hamilton, a 64-year-old former GOP state delegate from Newport News, was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison in 2011 after being convicted of securing a job at a teacher training center that he helped create with taxpayer money. Hamilton shepherded through a $500,000 budget amendment for the center at Old Dominion University while simultaneously working with university officials to ensure he would become its director, prosecutors said.

At issue in McDonnell’s case was a federal bribery law that makes it illegal for a public official to agree to take “official action” in exchange for money, gifts and other things of value. The Supreme Court ruled that setting up a meeting or organizing an event — without doing more — isn’t considered an “official act.”

Hamilton is one of the first people convicted or being tried in public corruption cases to try to take advantage of the McDonnell ruling, but many others are expected to as well, legal experts say. Also this week, attorneys for former congressman Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia argued in court documents that his racketeering and bribery conviction should be overturned in light of the McDonnell decision.

Hamilton, who’s representing himself, argues in his motion that the government provided no evidence that he took a “specific or focused action” to fund the center. He says the budget amendment he submitted didn’t specifically cite funding for higher education or ODU. It was others who appropriated the money for the school, he says.

“None of the government’s alleged official actions … are specific and focused actions related to funding for the creation of an educational training center at Old Dominion University in accordance with the new standards for official actions as put forth by the Supreme Court in McDonnell,” Hamilton wrote.

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Patrick Hanes, a Richmond attorney who has followed both Hamilton and McDonnell’s cases, said he believes it’s unlikely the 4th Circuit would find Hamilton’s argument convincing. The allegations in Hamilton’s case go beyond simply arranging a meeting or putting in a good word for someone, Hanes said.

Introducing and pushing for a budget amendment “look like quintessential ‘official actions’ of a legislator,” Hanes said.

McDonnell was found guilty in 2014 and sentenced to two years in prison, but has been allowed to remain free while his appeals play out. The high court sent the case back to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will decide whether prosecutors have enough evidence to try McDonnell again.

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