Ex-governor’s conviction reversed
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.