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The Supreme Court will consider whether former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell is a criminal for the favors he bestowed on a high-rolling businessman who showered him and his family with gifts, or just another politician.
McDonnell’s lawyers will tell the court that the acts that caused a jury to convict him of 11 counts of political corruption and a judge to sentence him to two years in prison are indistinguishable from the favors politicians regularly provide in exchange for gifts and campaign contributions. “Officials routinely arrange meetings for donors, take their calls, politely listen to their ideas, and refer them to aides,” McDonnell’s lawyer Noel Francisco said in his brief to the court. “In criminalizing those everyday acts, the government has put every federal, state, and local official nationwide in its prosecutorial crosshairs.” Such perceptions of politics-as-usual have fueled voter anger in the 2016 presidential election and energized voters who believe an outsider is needed to combat campaign donors and special interests. The government said McDonnell’s arguments go too far and take too cynical a view of the political system.
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr.’s brief to the court said that McDonnell’s view that “any benefit that can be characterized as ‘ingratiation or access’ may be sold in a quid pro quo exchange for a campaign contribution — or, by necessary implication, for a personal payoff. “By that logic, a member of Congress could condition the performance of routine constituent services on a $100 campaign contribution, and a governor seeking re-election could demand a $1000 contribution — or a personal loan — as the price of any official meeting with a senior member of his administration.” The reference to “ingratiation or access,” though, was to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC that such favors that follow campaign contributions are not corruption. And the court has said that laws governing the conduct of politicians must be limited essentially to bribery and kickbacks. A jury and then a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond said McDonnell’s conduct fit the bill. The case involves the relationship of McDonnell and his wife Maureen to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. The McDonnells were convicted in 2014, accused of 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 to remain free on bond with their appeals pending. Maureen McDonnell’s appeal has been put on hold at the 4th Circuit.
The Supreme Court indicated its interest in the case last fall by giving McDonnell, 61, a reprieve from reporting to prison while it considered whether to hear his appeal. 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 shown example after example of the luxurious lifestyle the McDonnells were able to lead only because Williams picked up the tab. Among them: expensive vacations, a Rolex watch for him, $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding reception, use of a Ferrari and $120,000 in sweetheart loans. Virginia’s laws at the time did not forbid such gifts. The legislature has made three attempts at ethics reform since McDonnell’s indictment. Once free to accept unlimited personal gifts from lobbyists or people seeking government contracts, public officials now cannot take presents worth more than $100 from a single giver per year. But federal prosecutors said that McDonnell’s role in promoting a dietary supplement Williams’s company was developing was part of a corrupt exchange of favors illegal under federal law. 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 mansion reception meant for health-care leaders. Defense attorneys argued at trial that there was no evidence McDonnell even knew what Williams wanted. And what he did want — state-funded studies of the product, Anatabloc — he never got.
But Williams, who was granted immunity by prosecutors, testified that the governor always knew why he was being so generous with the McDonnell family.