Holding the Government Accountable

McDonnell Decision a Setback for Anti-Corruption Efforts

On Monday, the US Supreme Court overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

A unanimous Court vacated his conviction because the jury was improperly instructed on the meaning of “official act” under the federal bribery statute, which prohibits public officials from accepting “anything of value” in return for performing an official act. The Court held the faulty instruction led the jury to convict McDonnell for conduct that was not unlawful.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of accepting $175,000 in money and gifts from Jonnie Williams, owner of nutritional supplements company Star Scientific. Williams testified he sought Governor McDonnell’s help in obtaining public money to fund research studies on the health benefits of one of his company’s products. In return for Williams’ generosity, Governor McDonnell arranged meetings for Williams with Virginia officials, hosted events for Star Scientific at the Governor’s Mansion, and contacted other government officials in regard to the research studies.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts found McDonnell’s actions were “distasteful” and “tawdry,” but not official acts.

“Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so)—without more—does not fit that definition of an ‘official act,’” the Court wrote. Instead, the Court held that an official act “must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee,” and the public official must “intend to exert pressure on another official or provide advice.” The Court compared McDonnell’s conduct to that of “conscientious public officials…hear[ing] from their constituents and act[ing] appropriately on their concerns.”

The Court’s McDonnell ruling, much like its Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings, elicited howls of outrage from good government groups. In the short term, it will probably trigger a flood of appeals by other ex-officials convicted under the same statute. In the long term, it will make it more difficult to prosecute public corruption. We fear the Supreme Court has given the green light to selling government access (but not action) to the highest bidder.

It’s one thing to perform constituent services, but it crosses the line to receive lavish gifts to do so.