The Supreme Court’s unanimous order today that former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is entitled to a new trial challenges the U.S. Justice Department’s definition of bribery in political corruption cases. The justices said the jury received faulty instructions on what constitutes bribery under federal law, the Associated Press reports.
McDonnell was convicted in 2014 of accepting $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement. McDonnell said he never took official action to benefit Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams or pressured other officials to do so.
McDonnell says he performed routine courtesies like setting up meetings and hosting events. Prosecutors said McDonnell accepted personal benefits with the understanding he would try to take official action to help Williams. A jury found McDonnell guilty of breaking a law that bars public officials from taking gifts in exchange for “official action.” He was sentenced to two years in prison.
There is no dispute that McConnell got multiple payments and gifts from Williams, which was not illegal in Virginia. Chief Justice John Roberts said the law can’t punish politicians for giving their constituents access to public officials who are willing to listen, but don’t actually exercise government power.
He said setting up a meeting, talking to another official or organizing an event does not meet the definition of an official act under the law. “There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” Roberts said, adding that the high court’s concern was not with the kind of “tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns” raised in the Virginia case but with “the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
He said, “A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption.”