How to define political corruption in the absence of clear federal standards presented the eight remaining justices with a tough case to close out the 2015 term’s oral arguments, following others on abortion, contraception, immigration and affirmative action. They must decide what constitutes the ‘quo’ in quid pro quo — exercising influence over government decision-making, or merely providing access.
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, who sat together in the courtroom, were convicted for accepting lavish gifts such as $20,000 in designer clothes, $15,000 to cater a daughter’s wedding and a $6,000 Rolex watch from Jonnie Williams, CEO of Star Scientific, a Virginia company marketing dietary supplements. In return, they helped Williams gain access to university and health care officials who could assist in winning federal approval for one of his products.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a former federal prosecutor, said McDonnell clearly intended to help Williams by arranging meetings with other state officials. Trial testimony and exhibits, she said, showed that University of Virginia officials “felt pressured” to conduct studies, though they never did. “They perceived that he was trying to influence them,” she said.
Unlike many politicians who wound up in prison, McDonnell cuts something of a sympathetic figure: a deeply religious family man whose marriage and finances went sour during his term-limited tenure as governor. The high court, in fact, appeared to tip its hand in his favor last August when it allowed McDonnell to remain free while fighting his conviction.
The stakes were high not just for McDonnell, a rising star-turned-fallen angel in Republican circles. Politicians and prosecutors who tangle over bribery, extortion and corruption statutes also were listening for the justices’ views on what constitutes business as usual in the corridors of power — and what’s a felony.
Former governors such as Alabama’s Don Siegelman and Illinois’ Rod Blagojevichand George Ryan were convicted under bribery and “honest services” statutes. In New York, former legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are appealing their federal bribery convictions.
McDonnell, 61, who served as governor from 2010-14, was convicted in 2014 along with his wife. He was sentenced in 2015 to two years in prison; she received a year-and-a-day sentence. The convictions were upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit last summer.
McDonnell contends he did nothing unusual to help Williams, a friend of his wife’s, nor asked anyone else to do so in exchange for the businessman’s gifts, which were legal in Virginia. Phone calls and referrals to government agencies, he and his supporters say, were routine actions, but the jury in his original trial was not so instructed.
“Officials routinely arrange meetings for donors, take their calls, politely listen to their ideas and refer them to aides,” his lawyer, Noel Francisco, argued in legal papers. “In criminalizing those everyday acts, the government has put every federal, state, and local official nationwide in its prosecutorial crosshairs.”
The Justice Department saw things differently. Williams sought state university studies to bolster his case for federal approval of Anatabloc, a dietary supplement made by his company. He didn’t get everything he wanted, but he gained significant access to the state’s first couple, even winning a product launch at the governor’s mansion.
“I think the message that would be sent, if this court put its imprimatur on a scheme of government in which public officials were not committing bribery when all they did was arrange meetings with other governmental officials … would send a terrible message to citizens,” Dreeben said.
McDonnell’s legal team and supporters also said that Supreme Court’s rulings inCitizens United v. Federal Election Commission and other campaign finance cases protect the free-speech rights of political donors seeking their way around the halls of government.
“Citizens United suggests that, though corrupt quid pro quo exchanges can be and are criminalized, ingratiation and access are not,” said a brief submitted by prominent Harvard and University of Virginia law professors
Former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell hugs his daughters Cailin Young, left, and Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky, right, after his federal district court sentencing in Richmond in January 2015. (Photo: Steve Helber, AP)