WASHINGTON — A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in a ruling that makes it harder to prosecute elected officials accused of bribery.
The justices ruled the jury received faulty instructions about what constitutes bribery under federal law.
McDonnell was convicted in 2014 of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement.
The former governor says he never took any official action to benefit Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams or pressured other public officials to do so. McDonnell says he simply performed routine courtesies for Williams 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 in 2014 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, but remained free while the high court considered his appeal.
There is no dispute that McConnell received multiple payments and gifts from Williams, which was not illegal at the time under Virginia ethics laws. But McDonnell said he did nothing in return except help a constituent reach out and make his pitch to other public officials.
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.
The gifts included nearly $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories for McDonnell's wife, a $6,500 engraved Rolex watch, $15,000 in catering for their daughter's wedding, and free family vacations and golf trips for their boys. Williams also provided three loans totaling $120,000.
As the gifts came in, McDonnell helped set up meetings with state health officials, appeared at promotional events and even hosted a launch luncheon for the dietary supplement at the governor's mansion. Williams was seeking state money and the credibility of Virginia's universities to perform clinical research that would support his company's drug.
McDonnell insists that he never put any pressure on state officials and that Williams ultimately never got the official action he wanted — state funding for medical studies on the dietary pills. The former governor argued the Justice Department was unfairly criminalizing "everyday acts" that are a typical part of job, leaving every public official across the nation subject to the whims of prosecutors.
A federal appeals court unanimously upheld the former governor's convictions last year.
McDonnell's wife, Maureen, also was convicted of corruption and was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Her appeal has been on hold while the Supreme Court considered her husband's case.