Supreme Court reverses federal corruption convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell

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Print this page Jessica Sabbath
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McDonnell pictured here in a 2010 interview with Virginia Business. File photo.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court Monday reversed former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 11 federal corruption convictions in a case that could have wide-reaching implications for what defines public corruption.

"I express my heartfelt gratitude to the justices of the United States Supreme Court for the time and attention they have given to the law in my case," McDonnell said in a statement. "Today, a unanimous United States Supreme Court Vacated my convictions, and it is a day in which my family and I rejoice and give thanks." 

The ruling vacates the judgment from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and remands it back to the court, which will have to decide whether the case could be re-tried given the Supreme Court’s new, more narrow definition of “official acts,” says Hank Chambers, professor of law at the University of Richmond.

If the court determines that there is sufficient evidence to convict McDonnell under the new definition, federal prosecutors could then decide whether to re-try the case. The court also could dismiss the charges.

“The Supreme Court certainly narrowed the scope of what is an official action in a way that severely and tremendously undercuts the Department of Justice’s arguments,” says Chambers. “So it’s going to be tough for the Fourth Circuit to say that the jury could have come to this conclusion given the new definition of ‘official acts,’ and it’s going to be really tough for the Department of Justice to fight this thing again.”

In the opinion, the Supreme Court ruling now says that “something more” than setting up a meeting, hosting an event or calling another official is required to qualify as an “official act.”

The government’s case said McDonnell did all three actions for businessman Jonnie Williams in exchange for more than $175,000 in gifts and loans. Williams wanted the state universities to conduct studies on its anti-inflammatory dietary supplement, Anatabloc.

“The government’s expansive interpretation of ‘official act’ would raise significant constitutional concerns. Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,” the Supreme Court opinion states.

The justices say that an “official act is a decision or action on a ‘question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.’” And this “must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee.”

Chambers says the court’s more narrow definition of official acts will make it more difficult for the government to prosecute corruption cases.

“If you’re required to get the kind of evidence that the Supreme Court seems to want to require, then you’re really going after the dirtiest of the dirty,” says Chambers.

The court’s opinion conceded that the McDonnell case was “distasteful,” but the government’s interpretation of “official act” was too broad: “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.”

McDonnell has been free on bond since his January 2015 sentencing, while his case was being appealed. U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer sentenced McDonnell to two years in prison after a jury convicted him on 11 counts of corruption.

A Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld McDonnell's conviction, but he then appealed to the Supreme Court.

McDonnell became the first Virginia governor ever to be convicted of a felony.

For her role in the scandal, former first lady Maureen McDonnell was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. Her prison sentence likely will be changed due to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

McDonnell’s conviction ruined what looked like a promising political future for McDonnell.

He was considered in 2012 to be a vice presidential pick for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

He reached a major political milestone in the 2013 General Assembly session following that election. With bipartisan support, he secured passage of a $6 billion comprehensive transportation funding bill, an achievement that had eluded his predecessors for 27 years.

Just weeks after the 2013 General Assembly session ended, a story appeared in The Washington Post revealing that Williams had paid for the Executive Mansion wedding reception for one of McDonnell’s daughters.

The story began a 10-month chronicle of revelations about gifts and loans showered on the McDonnell family by Williams, whose struggling company had switched from tobacco products to making dietary supplements. The scandal eventually led to the federal indictment of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, shortly after the governor stepped down at the end of his four-year term.

Reactions from politicians around Virginia began to trickle in on Monday:

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell: 

"I express my heartfelt gratitude to the justices of the United States Supreme Court for the time and attention they have given to the law in my case. Today, a unanimous United States Supreme Court Vacated my convictions, and it is a day in which my family and I rejoice and give thanks.

From the outset, I strongly asserted my innocence before God and under the law. 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.
I am exceptionally grateful to my faithful legal team who zealously advocated my cause at every step, as well as the authors and signers of the 13 excellent amicus briefs that argued for reversal. I thank the many friends and relatives who steadfastly supported my family and me through this time of great uncertainty. Countless people have called, emailed, texted, and came to see me to lend a wise piece of advice, a message of hope, a heartfelt prayer, or a hug. These multiple acts of kindness have become the new tapestry of my life, and have given me a vivid and indelible example of Jesus' admonition to live by the Golden Rule.

It is my hope that this matter will soon be over and that my family and I can begin to rebuild our lives." 

House Speaker William J. Howell:

“The strength of the American legal system is measured not by the guilty convictions it levies, but instead by the innocence it preserves. I am relieved for Bob, his family and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Bob will be the first to tell you he takes responsibility for his actions, but he is a good man with an honest heart. I have always been proud to call him my friend. Throughout this process, and even in the darkest hour, the depth of Bob’s character was on full display. His faith never wavered. He was a source of strength to his family. And he lifted the spirits of his friends and supporters when we should have been lifting his. Above all, his belief in the justice system persevered. That belief, and Bob McDonnell, were vindicated today.”

Del. Scott Lingamfelter

"I am delighted to learn that my friend Bob McDonnell received such an overwhelming verdict from the Supreme Court.  I believe this case was legally flawed from its inception.  My best wishes are with Bob and his family, who have endured this torturous process for many months.  My prayers and fondest hopes are with his family as they reassemble their lives."

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)

"Gov. Robert McDonnell accepted nearly $200,000 in cash and luxury goods, including a Rolex watch and flights in a private jet, in exchange for using the Governor’s office to help a business.  The Supreme Court today held that although the Governor and his aides took action—with state resources—on behalf of the business, those actions do not go far enough to constitute “official actions” without prosecutors proving still more, creating an additional hurdle before corrupt conduct is considered illegal.  This narrow reading of the law will seriously impede law enforcement’s efforts to clamp down on corruption.  The Supreme Court essentially just told elected officials that they are free to sell access to their office to the highest bidder.  If you want the government to listen to you, you had better be prepared to pay up."

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