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High Court to Review Bribery Conviction of Former Va. Governor

The Supreme Court agreed Friday to review the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell on federal corruption charges that he accepted gifts and loans in exchange for official actions.

The court’s ruling has the potential to affect the federal bribery statute and honest-services fraud statute as applied to politicians nationwide. To decide the case, the justices will explore what the laws mean by an “official action” by a government official or whether the statutes are unconstitutional.

The court will hear arguments this spring and rule before the end of the term in June.

Prosecutors said that in 2011 and 2012, McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, solicited and secretly accepted more than $175,000 in money and luxury goods from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams. The Justice Department contended that in exchange he agreed to have his office help Williams seek favorable actions from the Virginia state government. McDonnell was convicted in 2014 on 11 counts and sentenced in 2015 to two years in prison.

McDonnell’s attorneys argue that his official acts were limited to routine political courtesies such as arranging meetings, asking questions and attending events. McDonnell never exercised any governmental power for his donor, promised to do so or pressured others to do so, his attorneys said.

“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,” McDonnell argued in his petition. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit construed “official action” so broadly that “it made these commonplace actions federal felonies whenever a jury infers a link to the donor’s contributions,” the petition said.

The Justice Department argued in a brief that the appeals court upheld McDonnell’s convictions on a well-established standard: “on the unexceptionable proposition that a public official violates federal corruption statutes where, as here, he accepts personal benefits in exchange for his agreement to influence government matters.”

“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,” the Justice Department argued, “but rather in exchange for petitioner’s agreement to use his position to influence state officials to dispose of government matters in a manner favorable to Williams.

“Reaffirming that such quid pro quo agreements are unlawful poses no threat to legitimate political activity,” the Justice Department brief states.

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case wasn’t surprising. The court in August said that McDonnell could stay out of prison while the justices considered his appeal.

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