Supreme Court green lights gift bonanza by ruling public officials can take free stuff as long as they don’t do an ‘official act’ in return in reversal of Virginia governor Robert McDonnell case

 

  • McDonnell ad been convicted in ‘tawdry’ case of accepting lavish gifts in exchange for official favor
  • ‘Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns’
  • $175,000 in gifts alleged to have been given in exchange for boosting a vitamin supplement company
  • Court sent the case back to a lower court on terms that makes it hard to convict
  • Chief Justice John Roberts opinion calls the case ‘distasteful’ but fears ‘boundless’ bribery statute
  • Jail time spared
  • What constitutes ‘official act’ considered

By GEOFF EARLE, DEPUTY U.S. POLITICAL EDITOR FOR MAILONLINE.COM

PUBLISHED: 12:23 EST, 27 June 2016 | UPDATED: 12:23 EST, 27 June 2016

 

The Supreme Court unanimously tossed out the bribery conviction of disgraced former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell Monday, arguing that despite ‘tawdry’ details of the case McDonnell’s conviction couldn’t be justified because it wasn’t grounded in law.

Even as it issued its ruling, the court noted the unseemly details of the case – including McDonnell’s acceptance of a Rolex watch, catering costs for his daughter’s wedding, and designer clothes for his wife.  

‘There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,’ the court ruled in an opinion authored by chief justice John Roberts.

‘But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.’

The Supreme Court tossed out the conviction of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell Monday

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The Supreme Court tossed out the conviction of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell Monday

‘A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court,’ according to the ruling.

McDonnell and his wife Maureen McDonnell had been convicted in federal court of accepting $175,000 worth of cash and gifts while in office. McDonnell had been a rising political star before the explosive revelations.

A jury convicted McDonnell of violating bribery statues for accepting the gifts in exchange for helping businessman Jonnie Williams, who ran a vitamin supplement company. 

The company wanted assistance promoting its product, which contained anatabine, a compound that is found in tobacco. Williams, CEO of Star Scientific, wanted state universities to perform studies on the product.

The gifts weren’t prohibited under Virginia loose campaign finance laws.

A Rolex watch is one of many lavish gifts McDonnell received

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A Rolex watch is one of many lavish gifts McDonnell received

Time on his side: McDonnell avoided jail through his successful appeal 

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Time on his side: McDonnell avoided jail through his successful appeal 

Robert and Maureen McDonnell pictured in a Ferrari belonging to Williams. They were given use of the sports car during a vacation at Williams' vacation home

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Robert and Maureen McDonnell pictured in a Ferrari belonging to Williams. They were given use of the sports car during a vacation at Williams’ vacation home

The McDonnell's during their inaugural ball in Richmond

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The McDonnell’s during their inaugural ball in Richmond

Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell was found guilty of nine corruption charges

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Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell was found guilty of nine corruption charges

But the feds argued that favors the governor performed – including setting up meetings and letting Williams hold a luncheon at the governor’s mansion – ran afoul of bribery laws. Part of the government’s problem was that the things McDonnell allegedly did weren’t straightforward legislative acts or executive actions. The state-sponsored studies didn’t happen.

‘None of this, of course, is to suggest that the facts of this case typify normal political interaction between public officials and their constituents,’ the court ruled. ‘Far from it. But the government’s legal interpretation is not confined to cases involving extravagant gifts or large sums of money, and we cannot construe a criminal statute on the assumption that the government will “use it responsibly.”‘

Prosecutors could still try to convict McDonald, but now must meet a higher standard – and the high court expressed ‘no view’ on whether he should be prosecuted again.

‘If the court below determines that there is sufficient evidence for a jury to convict Governor McDonnell of committing or agreeing to commit an ‘official act,’ his case may be set for a new trial,’ according to the opinion. ‘If the court instead determines that the evidence is insufficient, the charges against him must be dismissed. We express no view on that question.’

The court held that an ‘official act’ must involve a ‘formal exercise of governmental power, and must also be something specific and focused that is ‘pending’ or ‘may by law be brought’ before a public official.’

‘To qualify as an ‘official act,’ the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter, or agree to do so. Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event—without more—does not fit that definition of ‘official act.’

McDonnell attorney Noel Francisco called the ruling a ‘home run’ Monday.

Francisco said the justices “completely embraced” the theory of McDonnell’s case.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3662631/Supreme-Court-green-lights-gift-bonanza-ruling-public-officials-free-stuff-long-don-t-official-act-return-reversal-Virginia-governor-Robert-McDonnell-case.html#ixzz4CnoAygPF
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