The misuse of the power in the context of our criminal system can have a serious impact on individuals facing charges. Overzealous prosecutors may take a simple criminal statute and begin applying it in a much broader context, in essence creating criminal violations lawmakers never intended. With its recent holding in McDonnell v. United States, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision against federal prosecution efforts to apply bribery law broadly, and with their decision sounded a warning for other prosecutors across the country looking to use their power to stretch the application of criminal laws.
I’ll be using today’s blog post to talk about the McDonnell case, and why the Supreme Court determined federal prosecutors overstepped their bounds in their case against former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Bob and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, violated federal law by engaging in certain official acts in exchange for $175,000 in loans and gifts from a Virginia businessman. In fact, the McDonnells’ relationship with the businessman in question, Jonnie Williams, began even before Bob McDonnell was elected. Williams, who was the CEO of a Virginia-based company hoping to obtain independent research studies on a nutritional supplement product it had developed, provided the McDonnells with transportation on his private plane during the election campaign. After Bob McDonnell was elected in 2009, he and his wife had a series of discussions and meetings with Williams. The McDonnells accepted gifts from Williams and looked to him for help with finances, while Williams looked for help from the McDonnells in connecting with people who could help obtain the research studies his company needed. Among other items, Williams provided the McDonnells with loans to help with their struggling rental properties, clothing for Mrs. McDonnell, and trips. At the same time, Governor McDonnell helped introduce Williams to Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources, facilitated meetings that included Williams and state health employees, and hosted a lunch and a reception that included university researchers and Williams.
Governor McDonnell and his wife were indicted in January 2014 on federal bribery charges. The Governor was convicted and received a sentence of two years in prison. Mrs. McDonnell was also convicted, receiving a shorter sentence of one year in prison. On appeal, the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Governor McDonnell’s conviction, and subsequently the Governor appealed to the Supreme Court. Mrs. McDonnell’s case was appealed separately.
The issue in Governor McDonnell’s case came down to the federal government’s broad reading of the federal laws on which it based its case against the Governor. The provisions of both the federal honest services fraud law and the Hobbs Act that were the basis of the government’s case required the government to prove McDonnell committed or agreed to commit an “official act” in return for receiving items of value from Williams. The government successfully argued at trial that arranging meetings, hosting events, and contacting other state officials qualified as “official acts” under the law. However, the Supreme Court ultimately decided that this reading of the term “official acts” was overly broad.
Noting a substantial constitutional concern with the government’s expansive definition of “official act,” the Supreme Court decided to take a much more narrow approach to defining the term. To prove an official act was committed in this instance, the Court noted that the prosecution was required to first identify some “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” that was pending or could be brought before Governor McDonnell, and (2) prove that the Governor made a decision or took an action (or agreed to do either) on that “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.”
According to the Court, the terms “question, matter, cause, suit proceeding or controversy,” require some more formal exercise of government power than a simple meeting, event or call on its own. The Court further held that the act of setting up a meeting, hosting an event or making a call could not qualify on its own as “making a decision or taking an action” on a question or matter. In this case, Governor McDonnell would have been required to take an action or make a decision (or agree to do either) on an official matter or question, such as deciding to initiate a research study. Simply facilitating discussions about the research project was not enough. Because the jury in Governor McDonnell’s case was not properly instructed on what constituted an “official act” possibly leading to a conviction on insufficient evidence, the Supreme Court vacated Governor McDonnell’s conviction and remanded it to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Notably, the Supreme Court did not completely dismiss the charges against Governor McDonnell. The case will now go back to the Court of Appeals to decide whether the prosecution provided enough evidence to meet the standard for “official act” spelled out by the Supreme Court. Given that the prosecution based its case on a much broader reading of the law, they may have difficulty meeting the more stringent standard. The government will no doubt need to reassess how loosely it interprets and proves violations of federal bribery law and similar laws.
If you have been charged with a federal crime and are looking for a tough defense lawyer, please contact the Law Offices of Hope Lefeber for a free initial consultation. I have over 30 years of experience defending clients from across the Philadelphia area and am ready to fight for you too.