In bribery case, Supreme Court narrows definition of ‘official acts’

The Supreme Court has set out a new standard for what can constitute official corruption.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks outside the US Supreme Court in April after the high court heard oral arguments on the corruption case against him.

The US Supreme Court overturned the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on corruption charges on Monday, ruling unanimously that a district court had allowed an excessively broad definition of what constituted “official acts.”

The McDonnell case raised questions about where the line lies between politicians listening to and acting on the needs of constituents –the central criterion of any democracy – and allowing those constituents to purchase influence. The high court's unanimous ruling sharpens the line between representation and cronyism and provides clearer guidance for prosecutors seeking charges relating to political impropriety. 

Mr. McDonnell, a onetime chair of the Republican Governors Association who was touted as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in his 2012 presidential campaign, had been sentenced to two years in prison for accepting $175,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, chief executive officer of a Virginia-based dietary supplement company. 

Mr. Williams had sought Food and Drug Administration approval of Anatabloc, a supplement made from a compound found in tobacco. To help get it, he wanted researchers from Virginia’s public universities to conduct studies on Anatabloc’s health benefits.

Prosecutors argued that at Williams’s request, the governor arranged meetings for him with other Virginia officials, hosted events for Williams’s company at the governor’s mansion, and contacted officials about the studies.

The justices left open the possibility that McDonnell may have committed improprieties. But the prosecution, the court found, never showed that McDonnell agreed to commit official acts “in exchange for the loans and gifts.” And it restricted the definition of an official act to “specific and focused” questions or matters that deal with government power and are either “pending” or “may by law be brought” before an official.

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” wrote Justice John Roberts in the unanimous opinion. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”

In representative government, wrote Justice Roberts in the opinion, public officials are supposed to hear from their constituents and act on their needs, including by arranging meetings, contacting other officials on their behalf, and inviting them to take part in events.

Under the terms of the circuit court’s conviction, public officials might begin to wonder “whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse."

“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,” wrote Roberts.

Some observers expressed concern that the decision would create too high of a standard for prosecuting public corruption. “What the ruling will do,” wrote Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, “is have a potentially profound effect on future cases involving allegations of public corruption against politicians.”

“No court – not even the Supreme one – can crawl inside a politician's head to see what he was thinking at any given moment,” Mr. Cillizza wrote. “That makes determining intent – unless a politician documents his intent – virtually impossible."

Cillizza pointed to the scandal ensnaring Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey. Prosecutors accuse the senator of receiving nearly $750,000 in gifts and campaign donations from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, in exchange for influencing State and Commerce Department officials to ensure the safety of the eye doctor’s investments in the Dominican Republic. Senator Menendez says he and Dr. Melgen are longtime friends, and that his official actions are unrelated to Melgen’s gifts and donations.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Jennifer Rodgers, a former assistant US attorney in the Southern District of New York, said she didn’t think the decision would make investigators less likely to seek charges in public corruption cases.

“You adjust what you’re looking for anytime you have a clarified definition,” says Rodgers, now the executive director of Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity. “It helps you focus your investigation a little more precisely.”

What McDonnell was accused of doing, she said, was at the margin of his job description. “Most of the time, the public official [is acting] within the heartland of what their public duties are.... The vast majority of cases are not going to be impacted."

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