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Unanimous Supreme Court overturns VA ex-Governor's corruption conviction

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court overturned former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's conviction on federal corruption charges Monday, sending the case back to the district court.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Court, said the district court's jury instructions "were erroneous, and the jury may have convicted Governor McDonnell for conduct that is not unlawful."

"Because the errors in the jury instructions are not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt," Roberts wrote, "the Court vacates Governor McDonnell's convictions."

In a statement, McDonnell said he and his family "rejoice and give thanks" for the ruling.

"It is my hope that this matter will soon be over and that my family and I can begin to rebuild our lives."

McDonnell  was convicted on 11 counts of corruption by a Richmond jury in September 2014. His wife, Maureen, was convicted on eight counts of corruption.

Federal prosecutors had argued the McDonnells carried out official state acts in return for favors, and nearly $175,000 in cash and gifts, from businessman Jonnie Williams.

Williams, the former CEO of Virginia-based Star Scientific, a dietary supplement company, hoped McDonnell would use his authority to convince Virginia universities to study the health benefits of Anatabloc, an anti-inflammatory supplement derived from tobacco, to help the company win Food and Drug Administration approval.

Williams was given blanket immunity from prosecution in exchange for his trial testimony against the McDonnells.

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer sentenced McDonnell to two years in prison, and his wife two one year and one day.

A federal appeals court upheld the lower court's verdict in July 2015. Both McDonnells have been free on bond pending the Supreme Court's decision.

The former Governor can be retried in federal district court based upon the Supreme Court's interpretation of the law.

In his opinion, Roberts held the government's interpretation of the Hobbs Act, the federal law under which McDonnell was charged, was "inconsistent with both text and precedent," and that "the Government’s expansive interpretation of 'official act' would raise significant constitutional concerns.”

But the decision hinged on the instructions Spencer gave to the trial jury.

Roberts wrote that Spencer's instructions "lacked important qualifications, rendering them significantly over-inclusive."

"At trial," Roberts continued, "several of Governor McDonnell’s subordinates testified that he asked them to attend a meeting, not that he expected them to do anything other than that.

"If that testimony reflects what Governor McDonnell agreed to do at the time he accepted the loans and gifts from Williams," Roberts added, "then he did not agree to make a decision or take an action on any of the three questions or matters described by the Fourth Circuit."

Paul Goldman, an attorney and former Democratic Party of Virginia chairman who wrote extensively on the McDonnell trial, said this was "the Court throwing the prosecutors a bone."

"They didn't go into the specifics of the Hobbs Act, and kept the focus on the jury instructions," Goldman said.

The Court rejected a claim McDonnell's attorney made in their briefs around the vague definition of honest services fraud under the Hobbs Act.

"Because the Court interprets the term 'official act' in in a way that avoids the vagueness concerns raised by Governor McDonnell," Roberts wrote, "it declines to invalidate those statutes under the facts here."

The Court also left it up to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to decide whether there was sufficient evidence McDonnell had committed an official act.

Goldman said it is unlikely McDonnell will face a new trial.

"Nobody is going to retry this case," he said. "It's too big a risk. 

"If the prosecutors lose in a retrial, it undermines the Hobbs Act, and that takes away a key tool they use to go after corruption," Goldman said.

"And what do they have to gain in a second trial? They might get a prison sentence, but McDonnell has already been humiliated and bankrupted," Goldman said. "But he's never going to jail."

McDonnell supporters were quick to issue statements lauding the Court's decision.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he was "relieved for Bob, his family and the Commonwealth of Virginia."

"Bob will be the first to tell you he takes responsibility for his actions," Howell said. "But he is a good man with an honest heart."

State Senator and former attorney general candidate Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) said in a Twitter post that he does not "believe there is a basis for a retrial and would expect [the Fourth Circuit] to dismiss outright."

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) said that with its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court "has unambiguously determined that [McDonnell's] conviction was unjust."

McDonnell's successor as governor, Terry McAuliffe, said in a statement: "The governor made mistakes and has apologized, but the Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that his trial should not have resulted in a criminal conviction.

"It is my hope that today's ruling," McAuliffe said, "is the beginning of the end for this difficult process for our Commonwealth."

Not everyone cheered the ruling.

New York Democratic congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout said on Twitter the Court "endorsed bribery in our politics and further empowered moneyed interests over people."

The nonprofit ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington issued a statement in which its executive director, Noah Bookbinder, said the decision "essentially just told elected officials that they are free to sell access to their office to the highest bidder. If you want the government to listen to you, you had better be prepared to pay up."   

The Roberts opinion did call the McDonnell case "distasteful" and said "it may be worse than that."

"But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns," Roberts wrote.

"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."