On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear the final case of its current term, deciding if political corruption and “official acts” differ in the conviction of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell.
The Court accepted McDonnell’s appeal on January 15, 2016, and its decision could have vast implications for other public corruption cases.
In July 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision, in which a jury found McDonnell guilty of 11 corruption counts. The charges stem from McDonnell and his wife Maureen’s relationship with businessman Jonnie Williams, who gave them $175,000 to in loans, cash, and gifts of luxury goods.
Williams owned a dietary supplement company and wanted the Food and Drug Administration to classify a product it developed as a pharmaceutical. He also wanted state universities in Virginia to conduct testing related to the product’s approval using state funds.
Williams then allegedly provided monetary and material support to McDonnell so that he would use his power to influence state universities to run trials and testing for Williams’s product.
In order to substantiate this claim, prosecutors cited instances in which Williams gave money directly to McDonnell and his wife. McDonnell forwarded letters to Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Services Bill Hazel that suggested that Virginia state universities should fund studies for Williams’s pharmaceutical products. McDonnell and his wife also arranged meetings between Williams and individuals in the state university system. However, Williams’s product was never granted testing support by any Virginia university or medical school.
McDonnell was later found guilty of violating a federal bribery statute and the Hobbs Act, and he was sentenced to two years in prison.
McDonnell then filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In August, the Court ordered that McDonnell be released from prison while his case was considered.
The Supreme Court is considering just one of several questions presented in McDonnell’s appeal, centering on a claim that federal prosecutors used an expansive definition of an “official acts” provision used in corruption cases.
The ex-Governor’s lawyers argue that the interactions between Williams and McDonnell were “routine political courtesies,” and that McDonnell “never exercised any governmental power on behalf of [Williams].” The petition contends the case is the first time a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to “put a thumb on the scales of any government decision.”
“The Government openly advocates a legal rule that would make a felon of every official at every level of government—from a ‘cabinet secretary’ to a ‘janitor’,” they said in their most-recent brief.
The U.S. Solicitor General believes that federal law defines an “official act” in a broad enough way to clearly include the actions taken by McDonnell on behalf of Williams.
“This case has proceeded on the understanding that the ‘official action’ component of the corruption charges against petitioner is defined by 18 U.S.C. 201, which governs the bribery of federal officials,” the Justice Department argues. “For more than a century, this Court and others have broadly interpreted Section 201 and its predecessors to reach ‘[e]very action that is within the range of official duty,’ including—as in this case—an official’s exercise of influence over decisions made by others.”
The eight Justices of the Supreme Court will hear one hour of arguments on Wednesday, with a decision most likely toward the end of its current term in June.
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