Supreme Court Strikes Down Ex-Governor’s Bribery Conviction, Saying Law Too Vague

Supreme Court Strikes Down Ex-Governor's Bribery Conviction, Saying Law Too Vague
Supreme Court Strikes Down Ex-Governor's Bribery Conviction, Saying Law Too Vague

The former governor of Virginia was improperly convicted of engaging in “official acts” in exchange for $175,000 in gifts and loans, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today, in a case that even Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged was “distasteful” and “tawdry.”

McDonnell v. U.S. is about more than the gifts and designer clothes former Gov. Robert McDonnell and his wife accepted from a would-be nutritional supplement maker, Roberts wrote in a unanimous decision. It’s about whether prosecutors can define even routine interactions between government officials and their constituents as “official acts” subject to criminal bribery laws.

Conscientious public officials are constantly arranging meetings for constituents and contacting other officials on their behalf, Roberts noted. Including those actions in the definition of “official acts,” without a decision or at least an agreement to make one, he wrote, “could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships.”

“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,” Roberts wrote.

Today’s decision, like Skilling v. U.S.  in 2010 and Yates v. U.S. in 2014, represents yet another brushback pitch aimed at federal prosecutors whom the court thinks sometimes stretch criminal laws beyond their intended scope.

“What the court is saying is the government went well beyond what the law permitted here,” saidNoel Francisco, a partner with Jones Day in Washington who argued McDonnel’s case before the Supreme Court.

In Skilling, the court threw out the Enron chief’s conviction for violating an “honest services” statute that Justice Stephen Breyer only half-jokingly suggested could be used to prosecute someone for lying to his boss that he liked her hat so he could get back to playing a video game on his computer. (Skilling’s still in jail on other counts.) In Yates, the court reversed the conviction of a commercial fisherman for violating the recordkeeping provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act by allegedly throwing away undersized fish.

In this case, former McDonnell was accused of accepting $175,000 in gifts, loans and other benefits from Jonnie Williams WMB -6.15%, the chief executive of Star Scientific who wanted Virginia public universities to study a nutritional supplement made from anatabine, a tobacco compound.

Williams flew McDonnell around in his jet during the governor’s 2009 campaign, bought McDonnell’s wife $29,000 in designer clothing and lent the governor more than $100,000 to help relieve his financial problems. In exchange McDonnell arranged meetings with other officials and tried to convince state university researchers to study anatabine, the government said

The jury was instructed to convict if he agreed “to accept a thing of value in exchange for official action,” with arranging meetings and contacting officials described as “official acts.” McDonnell’s lawyers asked the court to tell the jury that “merely arranging a meeting” or other routine practices aren’t “official acts” unless they reflect a decision by the government. He was convicted and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, saying the jury should have been given a tighter definition of “official act.”

“The jury instructions reflected (the prosecution’s) theory from Day One,” said Francisco, McDonnell’s lawyer. “If had this decision on the books at the time they were considering whether to indict, they wouldn’t have had a case.”

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