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Robert McDonnell, The Supreme Court, and Bribery

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR


150106-mcdonnell-court_a24d6fa3f6aca3397046fd9c15b698c3.nbcnews-ux-320-320NBC News’ Pete Williams reported today on oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court. The arguments stem from former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s criminal appeal. McDonnell was convicted in federal court two years ago for accepting bribes while in office. From Williams’s report:

A jury convicted McDonnell in 2014 on a host of federal bribery charges for accepting $175,000 in money and luxury goods from a Virginia businessman who wanted help getting two state universities to conduct research on a diet supplement, so it could be submitted for approval to the Food and Drug Administration.The businessman, Jonnie Williams, wrote checks to help McDonnell pay credit card and real estate debts and cover the cost of catering his daughter’s wedding. Among the gifts were a Rolex watch, $20,000 worth of designer clothes for McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, and the use of a country club, a vacation home, and a Ferrari sports car.

None of those favors were illegal under Virginia law, which had no limit on gifts or loans given to public officials. But McDonnell was charged with violating federal anti-corruption statutes.

McDonnell’s lawyer, Noel Francisco, told the court that the governor never actually used the power of the his office to help Williams, who never got anything in return. The universities did not agree to research the diet supplement.

According to Williams, a majority of the Justices seemed to agree with McDonnell’s lawyer that the interpretation of the federal law used to convict the former governor is too broad:

Chief Justice John Roberts noted that a bi-partisan group of former prosecutors and White House lawyers filed a friend of court brief arguing that a defeat for McDonnell would mean that public officials could be imprisoned for doing even the most mundane political favors. “It’s extraordinary that those people agree on anything,” Roberts said.

Justice Stephen Breyer said if the government’s view of federal bribery laws is upheld, it could be a potential crime whenever a member of Congress writes a routine letter on behalf of someone who bought lunch.

Perhaps, from a strictly legal standpoint, McDonnell’s conviction should be overturned. What strikes me, however, is that all parties—and the Court itself—appear resigned to the fact that influence in politics is here to stay.

The government [arguing to uphold the conviction] said it doesn’t seek to criminalize the courtesies that public officials extend to donors who give legal campaign contributions. In McDonnell’s case, “the bribes were personal loans and luxury goods.”

In other words: accepting bribes in order to get elected is fine, but accepting bribes in order to feel the rush of driving a Ferrari is a bridge too far. This is, in a nutshell, the political reality of a post-Citizens United America.

— Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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