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Supremes toss McDonnell conviction, knock DOJ’s ‘boundless interpretation’ of federal bribery law

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday unanimously vacated former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s eleven corruption convictions.

The decision overturned the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which had upheld guilty verdicts against McDonnell and his wife.

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion for a unanimous court.

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,”  Roberts wrote. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns.”

The Supreme Court said it was concerned “with the broader legal implications of the governments’ boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”

Federal law prohibits doing or agreeing to do an “official act” in exchange for something of value.

A jury convicted McDonnell in September 2014 on eleven counts of conspiracy, bribery, and extortion. In January 2015, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison. His sentence was stayed pending the Supreme Court review.

During his trial testimony, McDonnell admitted accepting gifts and favors from businessman Jonnie Williams, including use of a Ferrari, golf outings, a Rolex watch, vacations, and private plane rides. McDonnell testified that he knew his wife took a $50,000 loan from Williams. He said despite the cash and gifts, Williams’s nutritional supplements business didn’t receive special treatment.

McDonnell said Virginia law required disclosure of the $177,000 in cash, loans, and gifts but didn’t prohibit accepting them.

The jury convicted McDonnell on three counts of honest-services wire fraud and six counts of obtaining property under color of official right.

His wife Maureen was convicted on two honest services wire fraud counts and five counts of obtaining property under color of official right. She was also convicted of one count of obstruction of an official proceeding.

McDonnell said his help to Williams — referring him to other government officials who might be able to promote one of Williams’ products — wasn’t an “official act.” He said it was the sort of thing politicians routinely do for constituents.

The Supreme Court agreed.

“Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,” the court said.

“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,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

In the decision, Roberts said McDonnell could be retried if the lower court “determines that there is sufficient evidence for a jury to convict Governor McDonnell of committing or agreeing to commit an ‘official act.'”

But if the lower court thinks the evidence is insufficient, “the charges against him must be dismissed.”   

Maureen McDonnell was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. She has also been free during her husband’s appeals.

The Supreme Court decision in McDonnell v United States is here (pdf).


Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He’ll be the keynote speaker at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference 2016.

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  1. How nicely nuanced is this SCOTUS decision! Despite all appearances, the Supremes unanimously saw the McDonnells' relationship with Jonny Williams as mere "constituent services," not a quid pro quo. This overturning, sadly, ruins my chances of shopping this story to Broadway as a musical Rogers and Hammerstein would be proud of…

  2. I'm disappointed to say the least with the SCOTUS, but maybe there are some skeletons in those closets. They chose the wrong decision to focus on a narrow definition of the law.

    For every two steps forward the world takes with combating human greed (like the creation of anti-bribery laws and enforcement actions in jurisdictions where the problem is prevalent), it will no doubt take another step back. This time that step backwards is in the USA, of all places.

    I just hope this Governor doesn't get off completely in spite of his actions. That would be a travesty of justice.

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