Supreme Court: Disgraced Republican Governor’s ‘Tawdry’ Deeds Aren’t Corruption

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell saw his conviction for public corruption vacated at the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, in a decision that could have significant implications for federal corruption probes.

McDonnell was convicted of corruption-related felony charges including extortion, conspiracy, and honest services fraud for helping Virginia businessman Jonnie R. Williams promote his company’s dietary supplement through state officials. In exchange, Williams, who turned state’s witness to avoid prosecution, showered the McDonnell family in largesse, which took the form of Rolex watches, vacations, ball gowns, and a ride in Williams’ Ferrari. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison. (RELATED: Convicted Fmr. Virginia Governor Maintains Innocence)

At issue in the case was whether McDonnell performed any “officials acts” in his capacity as governor on Williams’ behalf in return for the gifts.

The federal government argued that a government’s decision to meet with a prolific campaign contributor could constitute an official act. At oral argument, the justices greeted the government’s position incredulously, signaling a promising outcome for the former governor. Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested the government’s reading of the phrase “official acts” was so open to interpretation that it could implicate a government janitor who accepts a beer in exchange for extra work.

The unanimous opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, chided both McDonnell and the federal government’s capacious reading of the law.

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” he wrote. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute. 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.”

The court also explained that constituent meetings, even those convened to meet with donors, are an essential part of representative democracy, and the government’s attempt to contravene such interactions would dramatically change the way federal officials operate.

“Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,” he wrote. “The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns—whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm.”

McDonnell’s case will now be remanded to a lower court for further proceedings. The court, while vacating the conviction, did not order that a retrial be held. That decision will be made by a lower court judge.

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