U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Former Va. Governor's Conviction
A unanimous Supreme Court has overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in a ruling that makes it harder to prosecute elected officials accused of bribery.
WASHINGTON, DC (WVIR) - Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is thanking supporters and lawyers following a landmark decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.
In September of 2014, a jury found McDonnell guilty on 11 counts of public corruption.
Prosecutors had argued that McDonnell leveraged the power of his office after accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams.
Williams, the former CEO of Star Scientific, was seeking support from the state for a dietary supplement.
McDonnell said he never took any official action to benefit Williams, nor pressured other public officials to do so. The former governor claims to have simply performed routine courtesies for the businessman, like setting up meetings and hosting events.
Monday, the high court revealed its unanimous decision to throw out the corruption conviction against McDonnell. The justices sided with the defense, who argued jurors were not properly instructed on the meaning of an “official act” when they found McDonnell guilty.
"The [Supreme Court] did not actually decide upon Bob McDonnell's guilt or innocence. What it said was the jury instructions and the prosecution were too broad in their interpretation of a particular law," said political analyst Bob Holsworth.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion that there were "tawdry tales" in this case, from the Ferrari ride to the Rolex watch McDonnell received while in office. However, Roberts said arranging meetings, talking to another official or organizing an event is not an official government act.
"This decision is so important. The outcome of it is going to be paramount as it relates to the conducting of business," said 3rd District Senator Thomas Norment (R).
University of Virginia Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato says the justices’ decision is in no way a declaration of innocence for McDonnell. Sabato says the high court's decision, while vacating McDonnell's conviction, remains very critical of the former governor's actions.
“It is tawdry, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts. The governor's actions were exceedingly tawdry, and it ought to be unacceptable in any state, in particularly a state like Virginia, which compared to other states has had more integrity in government,” Sabato said.
"This whole theory of honest services and quid pro quo is a dark cloud that I think is looming over the heads of every elected public official in the United States, not just in Virginia," Norment said.
Sabato says the former governor's once promising political career is still over, despite this legal victory. He worries the ruling will increase public cynicism of elected officials who will now try to push the envelope with accepting gifts from supporters.
McDonnell thanked the justices in a statement for the time and attention they gave to his case. He also thanked those who have supported him and his lawyers who "zealously advocated" his cause.
It wasn't a complete victory for McDonnell or his supporters: the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the government need to agree if there's enough evidence under the clarified definition of official acts for a new trial.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Dana Boente, said in a statement Monday that his office is reviewing the high court's decision. He offered no further comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.