WASHINGTON (CN) — Hearing its final case of the 2015-16 session, the Supreme Court on Wednesday signaled they are poised to make it tougher for prosecutors to crack down on public corruption.
A jury found fprmer Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell guilty in September 2014 of 11 counts of fraud and he was later sentenced to two years in prison for accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement.
McDonnell insists his role in setting up meetings and hosting events for Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams was part of the customary services doled out by every politician.
At issue is a federal law that bars public officials from accepting money or gifts in exchange for “official acts.”
The court is expected to clarify what distinguishes bribery from the routine actions that politicians often perform as a courtesy to constituents.
McDonnell’s attorney, Neil Francisco, said that the former governor had simply arranged meetings and events between Williams, government officials and taxpayer-funded university researchers, and that because the former governor failed to use his elected position to effectuate any federal regulation of the drug, his actions did not “cross the line of influence.”
When asked to provide research funding for Anatabloc through the state tobacco commission, McDonnell responded with “a very polite no,” Francisco said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressed concerns over McDonnell’s intent in promoting the supplement — university researchers testified during the former governor’s six-week trial that they felt pressured by the former governor’s approach, she said.
But the justices nevertheless struggled over how to the draw between what might constitute a quid pro quo arrangement and what might not. Both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Stephen Breyer suggested the bribery law could be considered unconstitutionally vague.
And Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan warned that accepting the prosecutions more stringent interpretation of federal bribery statutes could pose legal problems for politicians who simply wish to grant political access to constituents or campaign supporters.
While the government does not favor placing a cap on political contributions and gifts, Breyer said it must be vigilant in defining political access lest elected officials find themselves in a Catch-22 situation.
McDonnell appeared seated in court between his daughter Rachel and wife Maureen, who was also sentenced to a year in prison for her role in the scheme. After the hearing, he expressed gratitude toward his family for their support.
Photo caption:Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on his corruption case. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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