Disgraced Governor Walks as SCOTUS Loosens Bribery Law

     (CN) — Potentially weakening federal corruption law Monday, the Supreme Court wiped the bribery convictions of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell for accepting $175,000 in loans and gifts from donors for his family.
     An election cycle dominated by outrage over money in politics has made McDonnell’s case one of the most anticipated rulings of the court’s term.
     McDonnell’s trial two years ago revealed the governor nabbed a free Rolex, while his wife scored a shopping spree at Bergdoff Goodman, from a political donor who headed dietary supplement company.
     The donor — Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams — also lavished McDonnell’s two daughters with wedding gifts.
     With the gifts themselves largely undisputed, the Republican’s appeals rested on the notion that McDonnell took no “official acts” for the executive or his company, beyond arranging meetings.
     For the ex-governor’s lawyers, access qualifies more as “politics as usual” than a criminal scheme.
     In a unanimous decision Monday, the Supreme Court endorsed what some have described as a cynical view.
     “There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute. A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this court.”
     During an April hearing, the Supreme Court panel’s sharp questioning of the government left little doubt that McDonnell would see a reversal today.
     For many court-watchers, the question mark hanging over the case was how the fallout of the ruling would constrain federal prosecutors from clamping down on corruption.
     Experts at the Campaign Legal Center and the Brennan Center for Justice both expected a mixed decision, and opined that the majority opinion’s lead author would help determine the breadth of the blow to prosecutors. Few expected unanimity from a court with a longstanding partisan divide.
     Yet all of the justices appeared troubled about what they viewed as prosecutors’ expansive definition of corruption.
     “In the government’s view, nearly anything a public official accepts — from a campaign contribution to lunch — counts as a quid; and nearly anything a public official does — from arranging a meeting to inviting a guest to an event — counts as a quo,” Roberts wrote, using the Latin expression of “this for that.”
     The Supreme Court unanimously worried how upholding McDonnell’s convictions could chill politicians’ interactions with their constituents, from a union official concerned about a plant closing to a homeowner attempting to restore power after a storm.
     “The government’s position could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships if the union had given a campaign contribution in the past or the homeowners invited the official to join them on their annual outing to the ballgame,” the 28-page opinion states. “Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.”
     The Campaign Legal Center’s deputy executive director Tara Malloy countered that the court’s ruling would corrode democracy in a different way.
     “Today’s ruling makes it even more difficult to protect our democracy from attempts by officeholders to peddle political access and influence to the highest bidder,” Malloy said in a statement. “This entire case could have been avoided if Virginia had taken the necessary and vital steps to prohibit the receipt of huge gifts from people who have business before the government.”
     The Supreme Court left a narrow opening for federal prosecutors to retry McDonnell under the theory that arranging meeting is not always “an innocent act,” if there is an expectation of another official action.
     “If an official sets up a meeting, hosts an event, or makes a phone call on a question or matter that is or could be pending before another official, that could serve as evidence of an agreement to take an official act,” the opinion states. “A jury could conclude, for example, that the official was attempting to pressure or advise another official on a pending matter.”
     Reacting to this passage in a phone interview, Malloy commented: “The government possibly lives to fight another day.”
     Malloy added that advocates of integrity in government could also take comfort in the fact that the justices stopped short of a more sweeping ruling.     
     “They did not bite on the more radical argument that there’s some sort of constitutional protection, or First Amendment protection, for the low grade purchase of access,” she noted.
     In the months since the court’s hearing on McDonnell, attorneys for a political rogues’ gallery have been preparing how to use the predicted precedent to help redeem their clients.
     Two of New York’s most powerful ex-legislators — former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos — successfully delayed their incarceration date last month by arguing that the case would help them win on appeal.
     Silver’s attorneys at MoloLamken on Monday said the McDonnell ruling will be “central” to their client’s appeal.
     “The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision today in the McDonnell case makes clear that federal government has gone too far in prosecuting state officials for conduct that is part of the everyday functioning of those in elected office,” attorneys Steven Molo and Joel Cohen said in an email.
     Federal prosecutors in Manhattan nevertheless remained confident Monday that the Supreme Court’s ruling would not unsettle convictions that rocked Albany last year.
     “While we are reviewing the McDonnell decision, the official actions that led to the convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos fall squarely within the definition set forth by the Supreme Court today,” James Margolin, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, said in statement.
     News outlets have also named former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez as potential beneficiaries of a McDonnell reversal.
     It remains unclear how McDonnell’s reversal will affect the conviction of his wife, Maureen, who was sentenced to a year in prison for her role in the scheme.
     McDonnell’s attorney did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

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