The Supreme Court will decide whether former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell was rightly convicted of corruption for his efforts on behalf of a businessman who bestowed money and gifts on the governor and his family.
The court announced Friday that it would intervene in the long-running saga of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, and the case provides the justices a fresh opportunity to define what kind of political conduct crosses the line into criminal behavior.
McDonnell’s attorneys had told the court that if his “routine political courtesies” to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. could be construed as felonies, it would make all politicians vulnerable and arm federal prosecutors “with a frightening degree of control over the political process.”
The McDonnells, who were convicted in 2014, were accused of intervening with state officials on Williams’s behalf in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods. The former governor was sentenced to two years in prison; Maureen McDonnell received a year and a day.
Both, though, were allowed to remain free on bond with their appeals pending. The ex-governor’s conviction was upheld by a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit; his wife’s appeal has been put on hold at that court.
The Supreme Court indicated its interest in the case last fall by giving McDonnell, 61, a reprieve from reporting to prison while it considered whether to hear his appeal.
After the Supreme Court’s announcement Friday, McDonnell issued a statement thanking the court for accepting the case. “I am innocent of these crimes and ask the court to reverse these convictions. I maintain my profound confidence in God’s grace to sustain me and my family, and thank my friends and supporters across the country for their faithfulness over these past three years,” he said.
The court will likely hold oral arguments in McDonnell’s case in April, with a decision coming before the court adjourns in June.
The Justice Department argued that there was nothing about the conviction of McDonnell — a onetime rising star in the Republican Party who finished his term in disgrace — that warranted the high court’s attention.
His claims about overzealous prosecution and the threats his conviction held for other officeholders were hyperbole, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said.
“The evidence at trial amply supported the jury’s finding that Williams lavished gifts on petitioner not to obtain the sort of general ‘access’ commonly provided to campaign donors, but rather in exchange for [McDonnell’s] agreement to use his position to influence state officials,” Verrilli said in a filing with the court. “Reaffirming that such quid pro quo agreements are unlawful poses no threat to legitimate political activity.”
In recent years, the Supreme Court has limited the legal scope of what is considered public corruption. In campaign-finance cases, including Citizens United v. FEC, the court has noted that mere political favors for contributors do not amount to corruption.
And in a case involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, the court scaled back one of federal prosecutors’ favorite tools for pursuing corrupt politicians and self-dealing corporate chiefs. The court narrowed the definition of what constitutes depriving the public or a company of a leader’s “honest services,” essentially saying it had to involve accepting bribes or kickbacks to be criminal.
The McDonnells were convicted after a gripping trial in which the former governor’s financial woes and marital troubles were aired publicly. The couple separated after leaving the governor’s mansion in Richmond.
Jurors were shown example after example of the luxurious lifestyle the McDonnells were able to lead only because Williams picked up the tab. Among them: expensive vacations, a Rolex watch, $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding reception, use of a Ferrari and $120,000 in sweetheart loans.
Virginia’s lenient laws did not forbid such gifts. But federal prosecutors said that McDonnell’s role in promoting a dietary supplement Williams’s company was developing was part of a corrupt exchange of favors.
McDonnell’s contributions, they said, came in the form of meetings arranged to connect Williams with state officials, a luncheon Williams was allowed to throw at the governor’s mansion to help launch the product and a guest list Williams was allowed to shape at mansion reception meant for health-care leaders.
Defense attorneys argued at trial that there was no evidence McDonnell even knew what Williams wanted. And what he did want — state-funded studies of the product, Anatabloc — he never got.
But Williams, who was granted immunity by prosecutors, testified that the governor always knew why he was being so generous with the McDonnell family.
Prosecutors built a strong circumstantial case. In one instance, McDonnell directed a subordinate to meet with Williams the same night he returned from a free vacation at the businessman’s lake house. In another, six minutes after emailing Williams about a loan, McDonnell emailed an aide about studies Williams wanted researchers at a public university to conduct on his product.
In a brief to the court, Noel J. Francisco, an attorney for McDonnell, said such “courtesies” were not the kind of official actions that the corruption laws contemplate. He said prosecutors never showed that McDonnell exercised any governmental power to help Williams or pressured others to do so.
“This is 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,” he wrote.
McDonnell’s attorneys had compiled an impressive list of supporters to tell the court that his appeal raised important issues. Eleven groups filed amicus briefs, among them 66 former state attorneys general, 31 governors and a collection of former high-ranking federal officials, including a retired judge.
The government replied that the law does not require a showing of “pressure.” Nor does it matter that Williams did not get what he wanted, Verrilli wrote. “The failure of a bribery scheme does not make it lawful.”
The Supreme Court declined to hear a secondary challenge McDonnell raised — that the judge at his trial did not do enough to ensure he had a jury unswayed by the enormous pretrial publicity.
The case is McDonnell v. U.S.
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.