The Supreme Court handed a victory to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) on Monday, unanimously tossing out his conviction on corruption charges and his two-year prison sentence.
The court said the parties have not had an opportunity to argue whether the charges should be dismissed due to insufficient evidence, so the justices are leaving it up to a lower court to hold a retrial.
“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful. It may be worse than that,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in delivering the opinion of the court. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns. It instead is with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
In appealing his conviction, McDonnell challenged the jury instructions specifically. He claimed that the district court misstated the law and the sufficiency of the evidence against him.
Because those errors occurred, the justices said the jury might have made a mistake.
“Because the jury was not correctly instructed on the meaning of an ‘official act,’ it may have convicted Gov. McDonnell for conduct that is not unlawful,” Roberts wrote in the decision. “For that reason, we cannot conclude that the errors in the jury instruction were ‘harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ”
A federal grand jury in September 2014 convicted McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on 11 counts of fraud for having accepted more than $175,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., an executive at the dietary supplement company Star Scientific.
The government argued that McDonnell took meetings, hosted events at the governor’s mansion and contacted staff to help Williams secure independent testing for a new tobacco-based diet supplement called Antabloc. In return, Williams showered him and Maureen with gifts that included $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding reception, the use of Williams’s Ferrari and a Rolex watch.
But the justices said arranging a meeting or hosting an event doesn’t mean McDonnell agreed to help Williams.
“The jury may have disbelieved that testimony or found other evidence that Governor McDonnell agreed to exert pressure on those officials to initiate the research studies or add Antabloc to the state health plan, but it is also possible the jury convicted Governor McDonnell without finding that he agreed to make a decisions or take an action on a properly defined ‘question, matter, cause, suit proceeding or controversy,’” their decision said.
McDonnell in a statement expressed his “heartfelt gratitude” to the court.
“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 up my during 22 years in elected office,” McDonnell said.
“It is my hope that this matter will soon be over and that my family and I can begin to rebuild our lives.”
The U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which prosecuted McDonnell, said it was reviewing the court’s decision but had no further comment.
The justices appeared reluctant during oral arguments in April to endorse the federal government’s broad definition of an “official action” in prosecuting corruption.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) was quick to chastise the Supreme Court, calling it’s ruling a “narrow reading of the law” that will “seriously impede law enforcement’s efforts to clamp down on corruption.”
“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,” CREW’s Executive Director Noah Brookbinder said in a statement. “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.
The ruling, he argues, sends a message to elected officials that access to their offices can be sold.
“If you want the government to listen to you, you had better be prepared to pay up,” he said.