Having already delivered him a reprieve from reporting to prison, the Supreme Court announced Friday that it would decide whether former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell was rightly convicted of corruption for his efforts on behalf of a businessman who bestowed money and gifts on the governor and his family.
McDonnell’s lawyers had told the court that if his “routine political courtesies” to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. could be construed as felonies, it would make vulnerable all politicians and arm federal prosecutors “with a frightening degree of control over the political process.”
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in 2014 for intervening with state officials on Williams’s behalf in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods. The former governor was sentenced to two years in prison; Maureen McDonnell received a year and a day.
Both, though, were allowed out on bond with their appeals pending. McDonnell’s conviction was upheld by a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, while Maureen McDonnell’s appeal has been put on hold at that court.
After the Supreme Court announcement Friday, McDonnell’s lawyer Henry Asbill said, “I’m extremely grateful, and I’m ecstatic about this decision to take the case.”
The Justice Department argued there was nothing about the conviction of McDonnell–a one-time rising star in the Republican Party who finished his term in disgrace–that warranted the high court’s attention.
His claims about overzealous prosecution and the threats his conviction held for other officeholders were hyperbole, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. argued.
“The evidence at trial amply supported the jury’s finding that Williams lavished gifts on petitioner not to obtain the sort of general ‘access’ commonly provided to campaign donors, but rather in exchange for [McDonnell’s] agreement to use his position to influence state officials,” Verrilli said in a filing with the court.
“Reaffirming that such quid pro quo agreements are unlawful poses no threat to legitimate political activity.”
The McDonnells were convicted after a gripping trial in which the former governor’s financial woes and marital troubles were aired publicly; the couple separated after leaving the governor’s mansion in Richmond.
Jurors were presented with example after example of the luxurious lifestyle the McDonnells were able to lead only because Williams picked up the tab.
Included were expensive vacations, a Rolex watch, $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding reception, a loaned Ferrari and $120,000 in sweetheart loans.
Virginia’s lenient laws did not forbid such gifts. But federal prosecutors said that McDonnell’s role in promoting a dietary supplement that Williams’ company was developing was part of a corrupt exchange of favors.
McDonnell’s contributions, they said, came in the form of meetings arranged to connect Williams with state officials, a luncheon Williams was allowed to throw at the governor’s mansion to help launch the product and a guest list Williams was allowed to shape at another mansion reception meant for health-care leaders.
Defense attorneys argued at trial there was no evidence that McDonnell even knew what Williams wanted. And what he did want — state-funded studies of the product, called Anatabloc — he never got.
But Williams, who was granted immunity by prosecutors, testifed that the governor always knew why he was being so generous with the McDonnell family.
Prosecutors built a strong circumstantial case: in one instance, McDonnell directed a subordinate to meet with Williams on the same night he returned from a free vacation at the businessman’s lake house. In another, six minutes after emailing Williams about a loan, McDonnell emailed an aide about studies Williams wanted public university researchers to conduct on his product.
In a brief to the court, McDonnell’s lawyer Noel J. Francisco said such “courtesies” were not the kind of official actions that the corruption laws contemplate. He said prosecutors never showed that McDonnell exercised any governmental power to aid Williams nor did he pressure others to do so.
“This is the first time in our history that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scales of any government decision,” he wrote.
The government replied that the law does not require a showing of “pressure.” Nor does it matter that Williams did not get what he wanted, Verrilli wrote.
“The failure of a bribery scheme does not make it lawful.”
The Supreme Court signaled its interest in McDonnell’s case last September. Shortly before he was to receive his prison assignment, the justices agreed with his request that he stay out of jail until the court decided whether to review his case.
The government had opposed that as well, and Verrilli said his office had been unable to find a case in which the court had agreed to such a request.
The case is McDonnell v. U.S.
Rosalind Helderman and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.