A unanimous Supreme Court tossed out the criminal corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell yesterday. McDonnell and his wife had been convicted of bribery after they pulled a few favors for a Virginia businessman who had given them $175,000 in gifts, loans, and more. But those favors were relatively commonplace in the political world: setting up meetings, hosting events, or making phone calls on a constituent's behalf.
Such routine politicking does not constitute an "official act" in exchange for payment as required to sustain a federal bribery conviction, the Court ruled in an opinion certain to make corruption prosecutions more difficult in the future.
Tawdry Tales, Yes, But Not Quite Official Acts
McDonnell was convicted of public corruption as part of a scheme to help Jonnie Williams Sr. obtain approval for a tobacco-based dietary supplement. While accepting lavish gifts from Williams, the then-governor helped set up meetings with officials and attending public events with Williams.
For that, McDonnell was convicted of eleven counts of wire fraud and public corruption and sentenced to two years in prison. The federal public corruption law forbids politicians from performing "official acts" in exchange for cash and gifts.
McDonnell has long maintained that he committed no official acts on Williams' behalf. At trial, the district court's jury instructions defined "official acts" as "any decision or action on any question, matter, cause ... brought before any public official, in such official's official capacity." Under that definition, any exercise of "influence, power or authority" in exchange for cash or gifts could be considered official corruption.
But that definition stretches the law too far, the Supreme Court ruled. "There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ballgowns. It is instead with the broad legal implications of the government's boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute."
A Nod Towards Political Reality
McDonnell's conviction had been widely condemned by politicians, lawyers, and legal scholars, who saw in it the potential to criminalize regular political activities. The Supreme Court acknowledged those concerns in its opinion on Monday.
"Setting up a meeting, calling another public official or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an official act," the Court held.
"Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time," the Chief Justice wrote. Should the government's interpretation of official acts stand, "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."
That is not to say all political favors, short of intervening in official government decisions, are fair game. Even a simple phone call, the Court noted, could support a finding of official corruption if it's "on a question or matter that is or could be pending before another official."