Politico

By Josh Gerstein
Published: 06/27/16 – 10:33 AM EDT
Updated:    06/27/16 – 02:37 PM EDT

To read opinion, click the following link: U.S. v McDonnell

A unanimous Supreme Court has overturned the corruption convictions of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, ruling that federal prosecutors relied on a “boundless” definition of the kinds of acts that could lead politicians to face criminal charges.

The decision from the eight-justice court could make it tougher for prosecutors to prove corruption cases against politicians in cases where there is no proof of an explicit agreement linking a campaign donation or gift to a contract, grant or vote.

The court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, rejected the government’s position that simply agreeing to meet with someone on account of such largesse could be enough to constitute an official act that could trigger a corruption conviction.

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. 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,” Roberts wrote. “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 justices set forth a straightforward rule: “Setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an ‘official act.’”

In addition, the chief justice warned that accepting the government’s stance in the case could chill all sorts of routine interactions between politicians and their supporters.

“Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. 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,” Roberts wrote.

“The Government’s position could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships if the union had given a campaign contribution in the past or the homeowners invited the official to join them on their annual outing to the ballgame. 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,” the chief justice added.

A jury convicted McDonnell on 11 corruption-related felony counts in 2014, including “honest services” fraud, extortion and conspiracy.

The trial triggered public outrage as evidence showed the Virginia Republican and his wife accepted over $175,000-worth of loans and gifts, such as vacations, designer clothes and a Rolex watch, from a businessman seeking the state’s help in promoting a tobacco-based dietary supplement. McDonnell also borrowed a Ferrari from the businessman, Johnnie Williams, who turned state’s evidence and was not prosecuted.

In the court’s opinion, Roberts seemed eager to head off criticism that the justices were blessing politicians’ brazen attempts to improve their own financial condition through use of their official positions.

However, the chief justice emphasized that there were also risks in allowing prosecutors to decide for themselves what kinds of conduct crossed the line.

To read expanded article, click here.