Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to review his conviction on corruption charges, arguing that he never used the power of his office to aid a businessman he knew.
In a lofty filing that spanned 36 pages of arguments and hundreds more in appendices, attorneys for McDonnell argued that his case presented the “first time in our history that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scales of any government decision.” They asserted, as they have throughout the case, that allowing McDonnell’s convictions to stand would make criminals out of virtually every politician and give prosecutors unchecked authority to decide which ones to target.
“That is a dangerous power, inconsistent with our Nation’s commitment to resolving political disputes through the political process rather than by putting opponents in prison,” McDonnell’s defense attorneys wrote.
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted last year of lending the prestige of the governor’s office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods. Specifically, prosecutors alleged — and jurors agreed — that McDonnell used his office to help Williams try to advance his dietary supplement business.
Robert McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison and his wife to a year and a day. Both have been allowed to remain free while appealing their convictions.
Defense attorneys also argued that prospective jurors in the case were not questioned thoroughly enough about whether they had already formed an opinion on McDonnell and the allegations, which they said was problematic given the voluminous news media coverage leading up to the trial.
Their arguments have been rejected time and time again by lower courts, but now seem to have a chance of success. The Supreme Court decided in August that McDonnell would be allowed to remain free while they considered whether to take up his case — an indication that they believed that there was a “reasonable probability” that they would review the conviction and a “fair prospect” that a majority would overturn the lower court’s decision.
The U.S. government has 30 days to respond to the petition, and the Supreme Court typically decides in the weeks that follow whether to review the case. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, which brought the case, did not immediately return an e-mail seeking comment, and a representative from the solicitor general’s office could not immediately be reached Tuesday evening.
In asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, McDonnell’s defense attorneys argued that none of their client’s conduct constituted “official action” and that what McDonnell did was “limited to routine political courtesies: arranging meetings, asking questions, and attending events.” They wrote that jurors were wrongly instructed on the definition of “official action,” and at worst, McDonnell was guilty of rewarding a donor with access — something that the Supreme Court has said is okay.
“There is no dispute that Gov. McDonnell never exercised any governmental power on behalf of his benefactor, promised to do so, or pressured others to do so,” defense attorneys wrote.
Jurors heard evidence that Robert McDonnell allowed Williams to host a luncheon at the governor’s mansion when his supplement, Anatabloc, was being launched to market; asked other state officials to meet with Williams; and personally pulled out a bottle of Anatabloc and touted it in a meeting with subordinates. Prosecutors said Williams ultimately wanted state studies of Anatabloc, although those never came to fruition.
Maureen McDonnell’s appeal is proceeding separately and at a slower pace, with oral arguments scheduled before a federal appeals court in Richmond on Oct. 29.
Also on Tuesday, prosecutors pushed back against her bid to hold her case in abeyance while the Supreme Court considers her husband’s request.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.