Ex-gover­nor’s con­vic­tion re­versed

San Francisco Chronicle - - NATION -

WASH­ING­TON — A unan­i­mous Supreme Court on Mon­day over­turned the bribery con­vic­tion of for­mer Vir­ginia Gov. Bob McDon­nell in a rul­ing that could make it harder for prose­cu­tors to bring cor­rup­tion cases against elected of­fi­cials.

McDon­nell had been found guilty in 2014 of ac­cept­ing more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy busi­ness­man in ex­change for pro­mot­ing a di­etary sup­ple­ment. He was sen­tenced to two years in prison, but was al­lowed to re­main free while the jus­tices weighed his ap­peal.

The court voted to nar­row the scope of a law that bars pub­lic of­fi­cials from tak­ing gifts in ex­change for “of­fi­cial ac­tion,” say­ing it does not cover rou­tine cour­te­sies like set­ting up meet­ings or host­ing events for con­stituents.

The case was sent back to lower courts to de­cide whether prose­cu­tors have enough ev­i­dence to try McDon­nell again.

McDon­nell said he never took any of­fi­cial ac­tion to ben­e­fit Star Sci­en­tific Inc. CEO Jon­nie Wil­liams or pres­sured other state of­fi­cials to do so. McDon­nell claims he did noth­ing ex­cept to help a con­stituent gain ac­cess to other pub­lic fig­ures.

Prose­cu­tors in­sisted that McDon­nell ac­cepted per­sonal ben­e­fits with the un­der­stand­ing that he would try to take of­fi­cial ac­tion to help Wil­liams.

Chief Jus­tice John Roberts agreed with McDon­nell that the in­struc­tions to the trial jury about what con­sti­tutes “of­fi­cial acts” was so broad that it could in­clude vir­tu­ally any ac­tion a pub­lic of­fi­cial might take while in of­fice. That could leave politi­cians across the coun­try sub­ject to the whims of prose­cu­tors, he said.

“Set­ting up a meet­ing, talk­ing to an­other of­fi­cial, or or­ga­niz­ing an event (or agree­ing to do so) — with­out more — does not fit that def­i­ni­tion of of­fi­cial act,” Roberts wrote.

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