“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferrari’s, Rolex’s and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute. A more limited interpretation of the term “official act” leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court.”
Chief Judge John G. Roberts in McDonnell v. United States
On June 27, 2016, in McDonnell v. United States, a unanimous Supreme Court vacated the conviction of Governor Robert McDonnell on charges of bribery. The case turned on whether Governor McDonnell committed or agreed to commit an “official act” in exchange for loans or gifts. An “official act” is defined as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending which may by law be bought before any public official in such official’s capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit.” 18 U.S.C. §201(a) (3). The government’s claim was that Governor McDonnell committed at least five official acts including arranging meetings for Jonnie Williams, who was trying to market a nutritional supplement, and bring jobs to Virginia. The meetings were with Virginia officials to discuss the product, hosting “events for the company at the Governor’s mansions and contacting other government officials” concerning research studies on the product.
The key issue in the case was the jury instruction. The District Court instructed the jury that official acts encompassed “acts that a public official customarily performs” including acts “in furtherance of longer term goals” or “in a series of steps to exercise influence or achieve an end.” Governor McDonnell requested a further instruction that “merely arranging a meeting, attending an event, hosting a reception or making a speech are not standing alone, ‘official acts'”. The District Court declined to give the additional instruction requested by Governor McDonnell and the jury convicted him of bribery.
In the analysis of the Supreme Court, the jury instructions did not adequately explain to the jury how to identify the pertinent “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” The Court felt that it was possible the jury thought that a typical meeting, call or event constituted a form of governmental official acts. Based on the instruction, the court said the jury could have convicted Governor McDonnell without finding that he committed or agreed to commit what is an “official act”. The Court felt that the instruction did not tell the jury that the acts of Governor McDonnell had to be “more specific and focused than a broad policy objective.”
In understanding the decision of the Supreme Court in McDonnell v. United States, it is important to understand that the Court was not condoning the conduct of Governor McDonnell but simply concluding that the jury instruction may have caused them to convict him without truly understanding whether he was committing an official act. For that reason, the Court did not focus on the facts but did not ignore them either.
One fact in particular stands out. At a meeting at the Governor’s mansion, Governor McDonnell’s wife admired the Rolex that Jonnie Williams was wearing and “mentioned that she wanted to get one for Governor McDonnell.” Williams responding by asking Mrs. McDonnell if she wanted him to buy a Rolex for the governor. She responded: “Yes, that would be nice.” Williams bought the Rolex gave it to Mrs. McDonnell and she later gave it to Governor McDonnell as a Christmas present.
The Governor’s wife asking a constituent to buy a Rolex for her husband certainly sounds improper. But that’s not the issue that troubled the Supreme Court. The issue was whether the jury was confused as to whether or not Governor McDonnell, in urging government officials and others to help, Mr. Williams with his product was committing an official act. The Supreme Court felt that the jury instruction was too vague and seemed to suggest anything he did to assist Mr. Williams constituted an official act.
In the final analysis, Chief Judge Roberts acknowledged the gift of a Rolex, but said “our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferrari’s, Rolex’s and ball gowns.” The law is more important than the Rolex. The Court was concerned with “the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.” The conviction was vacated and the case was sent back to the Fourth Circuit in Virginia. Governor McDonnell may still be tried again.