Federal prosecutors have asked for three more weeks to decide whether they will pursue the public corruption case against former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, saying in a court filing that Justice Department officials are still debating how to proceed.
Friday’s filing asks the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to keep both cases on hold until Sept. 19, adding that it will be the last request for any delay. It offers no indication of how prosecutors may be leaning.
This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the former governor’s corruption conviction and set a higher bar for charging public officials with such corruption crimes, but it did so in a way that left open the possibility that McDonnell could be tried again. The high court ruled unanimously that the instructions given to jurors in McDonnell’s case about what constituted an “official act” were flawed and said that a lower court should consider whether the former governor’s case could be brought under the new definition it laid out.
Federal prosecutors then asked for time to weigh whether they would continue to press such charges. As well as considering whether prosecutors could win, Justice Department officials are likely debating whether to bring a case, given the resources another trial would consume.
“There are likely many stakeholders weighing in, such as the U.S. Attorney’s Office and different offices within Main Justice,” said Justin Shur, former deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section.
An attorney for McDonnell declined to comment.
The court’s decision has already begun having an effect on other political corruption cases. A judge ruled this week that ex-New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver can remain free on bail while appealing his conviction and 12-year prison sentence. U.S. District Judge Valerie E. Caproni said it was a “close question” whether Silver’s conviction would stand in light of the McDonnell ruling.
“This case has already had a number of ramifications with respect to other public-corruption cases,” said Brian Whisler, a former assistant U.S. attorney who represents former McDonnell staffers and cabinet members who were called to testify in the case. “Perhaps DOJ is reviewing this matter from a broader policy standpoint rather than solely the merits of this isolated case.”
Prosecutors had previously sought — and won — a month to review the Supreme Court’s decision. This new request is also likely to be granted within a few days, given that McDonnell’s defense team has agreed to the motion.
The McDonnells were convicted of taking more than $175,000 in loans and gifts in exchange for helping Richmond business executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. promote a dietary supplement.
The McDonnells arranged to connect Williams with state officials, let him throw a luncheon at the governor’s mansion to help launch the product and shape the guest list at a mansion reception meant for health-care leaders, jurors found. But the Supreme Court ruled that such behavior was merely constituent service.
While all the gift-taking looked “tawdry,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time.”
To bring a new case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia must convince the federal appeals court that it can prove an illegal quid-pro-quo relationship between the McDonnells and Williams inside the more restrictive definition the court laid out.
Legal experts say Maureen McDonnell’s fate is tied to that of her husband. Although the Supreme Court did not address her conviction, they were tried under the same jury instructions, and her case is currently on hold. If her husband is tried again, she likely will be, as well. If prosecutors drop the case against her husband, they will follow suit with her.