Legal Newsline

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Attorney not surprised U.S. SC overturned conviction of former Va. governor

By Deana Carpenter | Jul 19, 2016

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2014 conviction on federal corruption charges has been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On June 28, the court ruled the jury in McDonnell's original trial was not instructed on the meaning of an “official act” in the federal bribery statute.

In Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion, an “official act” means deciding on or acting on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.”

McDonnell had been convicted of accepting more than $175,000 in gifts. Those gifts included a $55,000 loan, a $20,000 shopping trip in Manhattan and $15,000 in cash from Jonnie Williams, a Virginia businessman.

McDonnell also arranged for meetings between Williams and state officials to discuss Williams’ diet supplement product. At a specific luncheon, McDonnell spoke highly of the product to state officials and suggested state employees start taking the supplement. He also contacted several public universities in Virginia about studying and promoting the product, but that never came to fruition.

“To my mind, the ruling was predictable and inevitable result of the court’s ‘public corruption jurisprudence’ over the past decade,” Gary Schons, an attorney with Best, Best and Krieger’s San Diego office, told Legal Newsline.

Schons said such precedents began with the “infamous Citizens United case in 2010.” He said there the court repudiated its earlier decision in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which held the government had a legitimate interest in keeping the corruption resulting from political contributions out of the process.

“The court in Citizens United held that the only kind of corruption the government could legislate to regulate was ‘quid pro quo’ corruption, meaning bribery of extortion,” Schons said.

In 2014, the court decided in another case, McCutcheon v FEC, that Congress could regulate political money only if it amounted or threatened to “quid pro quo” bribery.

Schons said he was not surprised by the ruling.

“The court was on a path to trim the sails and cut back on the ability of federal prosecutors to go after corruption by limiting what the court viewed as actionable corruption solely to out-and-out bribery,” Schons said.

“I believe the court set out to remove from prosecutors the ability to go after politics as it is practiced -- the buying of access and influence, so when McDonnell arrived at the court, the outcome was inevitable," he said.

The Supreme Court has returned the case to its circuit court of appeals to determine if the evidence demonstrated McDonnell violated the bribery statute based on the court’s definition of an “official act.”

Schons said federal prosecutors first need to figure out if they should continue to litigate at the appellate court level or abandon the case all together.

“If they fight on, and the appellate court finds the evidence at trial did not prove any ‘official act’ as now understood, the case is over,” Schons said.

However, he said if the appellate court finds the evidence did support such a finding by the jury, federal prosecutors will have to decide whether to seek a retrial of McDonnell.

“I think the question in the circuit court is a close one and could go either way," Schons said. "Whether the federal prosecutors fight on, even to the point of seeking a retrial, is difficult to predict.”

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