Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Maureen McDonnell’s convictions had been vacated.
A federal appeals court has signaled that it agrees that former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell’s corruption convictions should be tossed out because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned her husband’s convictions.
Attorneys on both sides said that a ruling Friday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit suspends the public corruption case, and that further legal action is necessary to vacate the convictions as prosecutors decide whether to seek a new trial. But they said the order indicates that the court agrees with a defense analysis — unchallenged by prosecutors — that the first lady’s convictions cannot stand.
“Although the United States acknowledges that the Supreme Court’s opinion in McDonnell v. United States is equally applicable to Maureen McDonnell’s convictions, Mrs. McDonnell’s convictions have not been vacated,” federal prosecutors in Virginia said in a statement.
Both sides have until Aug. 29 to consider how to proceed in the cases against the McDonnells.
“At this time we are thoughtfully determining next steps in both cases,” prosecutors said in the statement.
The McDonnells were accused of helping a dietary supplement salesman in exchange for more than $175,000 in gifts and personal loans. They were tried together and convicted in 2014, although they had different defense teams and their appeals have proceeded separately.
The high court in June overturned Robert F. McDonnell’s convictions, but his wife’s case has remained under appeal.
“Her case has always been the follow-on case; this has always been all about the governor,” said Scott Fredericksen, a public corruption expert at the firm Foley Lardner. “What happens with his case will happen with her case.”
Should prosecutors decide to move forward with a new trial, they will face a difficult road. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the definition of an “official act” given to the jury that convicted both McDonnells was so broad, it could cover almost any action by a public official. The couple have always maintained that what they did for businessman Jonnie Williams — connecting him with state officials, letting him launch a product at the governor's mansion, and letting him shape the guest list for a health-care event — were things they would have done for any constituent.
“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,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote. “It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
Connecting constituents with state officials, as McDonnell did, is what “conscientious public officials” do “all the time,” Roberts wrote.
But there is still room for a case to be made with new jury instructions, former federal prosecutor Randall D. Eliason said. Williams wanted state grant money and state-funded studies to research one of his nutritional supplements. Although he didn’t get either, Eliason said prosecutors could argue that there was an agreement with McDonnell that he would.
McDonnell “doesn’t have to have performed these official acts. He just has to have agreed to perform them,” said Eliason, who teaches at George Washington University School of Law. “So it’s possible to say . . . there was sufficient evidence that the jury could have found there was an agreement to perform official acts.”