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Supreme Court unanimously overturns Virginia ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell’s convictions

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The US Supreme Court vacated former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s corruption convictions Monday, finding in a unanimous decision that corruption statutes should be more limited than federal prosecutors argued.

While he was governor between 2010 and 2014, McDonnell and his family had accepted $175,000 of loans and gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams, who was seeking the governor’s help in promoting his supplement company Star Scientific. In return, McDonnell contacted various state officials and staffers in his administration on the company’s behalf, set up meetings to that end, and arranged events for Williams at the governor’s mansion.

To make their case, prosecutors argued that these amounted to "official acts" that McDonnell undertook in return for the loans and gifts, and a jury convicted him of multiple corruption charges.

But all along, there was the nagging issue that the Virginia government never actually seemed to have made any policy changes to help the company. Government prosecutors couldn’t show that those chats with staffers, those meetings, and those events ever amounted to anything.

So the justices expressed worry that under this sweeping definition of what counts as an "official act," politicians could be vulnerable to federal prosecution for all sorts of ordinary political activities.

"In the Government’s view," Chief Justice John Roberts writes, "nearly anything a public official does — from arranging a meeting to inviting a guest to an event — counts as a quo. But conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time."

Therefore, the justices concluded that an "official act" had to involve "a formal exercise of governmental power" that is "specific and focused." Roberts writes: "Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event — without more — does not fit that definition of ‘official act.’"

McDonnell’s convictions in federal district court were accordingly overturned. He can still face a new trial if jurors are given these new, more stringent instructions about what an "official act" means, but it’s unclear how likely this is to happen. McDonnell’s wife, Maureen McDonnell, who was convicted on similar charges, will likely see her convictions overturned as well.

What Jonnie Williams did for McDonnell — and what McDonnell did in return

While in office, the governor and his family received from Williams $120,000 in loans, $15,000 for the catering bill at his daughter's wedding, $18,000 for a shopping trip for McDonnell’s wife Maureen in New York City, and $6,500 for a Rolex that Maureen requested for the governor. They also enjoyed the use of Williams's vacation home, his Ferrari, and his membership at an expensive golf course.

Gross, right? Well, here’s the thing — in and of itself, none of that is illegal in Virginia. Under the state’s infamously lax ethics laws, politicians can accept unlimited gifts from personal friends.

So to prove corruption, federal prosecutors had to find a quid pro quo — they had to find that McDonnell used the office of the governor to benefit Williams’s company.

Now, Williams was inarguably trying to get McDonnell to promote his company, and McDonnell was pretty clearly trying to help him out. These were the five official acts that prosecutors argued McDonnell undertook:

  1. "Arranging meetings for [Williams] with Virginia government officials ... to discuss and promote [Williams’s supplement] Anatabloc"
  2. "Hosting, and ... attending events at the Governor’s mansion designed to encourage Virginia university researchers to initiate studies of anatabine and to promote Star Scientific’s products to doctors"
  3. "Contacting other government officials in the [governor’s office] as part of an effort to encourage Virginia state research universities to initiate studies of anatabine" [a key ingredient in the supplement]
  4. "Allowing [Williams] to invite individuals important to Star Scientific’s business to exclusive events at the Governor’s Mansion"
  5. "Recommending that senior government officials in the [governor’s office] meet with Star Scientific executives to discuss ways that the company’s products could lower healthcare costs."

You’d be right if you think this all sounds really shady. (At one point, McDonnell contacted a staffer about a Star Scientific–related matter just minutes after discussing his loan with Williams, according to emails.)

But you’ll notice the words that are used. "Discuss." "Promote." "Encourage." "Invite" to "events." They’re pretty vague, and they could apply to any number of things. Nowhere does government money change hands. Nowhere is policy altered.

So many bipartisan legal experts with political experience warned in a brief that this amounted to a "breathtaking expansion of public-corruption law" that "would likely chill federal officials’ interactions with the people they serve and thus damage their ability effectively to perform their duties.’" They feared that the ordinary, day-to-day work of politicians could become criminalized.

The Court’s new definition of an "official act"

All eight justices on the Supreme Court agreed with these critics. According to their opinion, an "official act" has to "involve a formal exercise of government power, and must also be something specific and focused that is ‘pending’ or ‘may by law be brought’ before a public official."

"Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event — without more — does not fit that definition of ‘official act,’" the justices continue.

Essentially, something more concrete has to happen. Take the possibility of, in return for those loans or gifts, a state-funded study into the benefits of Williams’s supplements. Roberts writes that:

  • If McDonnell actually had initiated a state-funded study to help Williams, that could qualify as an "official act."
  • If McDonnell had exerted "pressure" on another official to perform this study, that could count.
  • If he had promised Williams he would initiate this study, that could also count, even if he never actually did it.

But merely talking about the possibility of conducting a study, even to his subordinates, wouldn’t be enough. Something more would have to happen to put McDonnell in legal jeopardy.

It remains theoretically possible that McDonnell could be tried and convicted again for what he did under this new standard. But, the justices write, under the standard the jurors were actually given, "the jury may have convicted Governor McDonnell for conduct that is not unlawful." So those convictions have now been vacated.