In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case called McDonnell v. United States, which unanimously vacated the corruption conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell, according to prosecutors, had accepted a variety of gifts and other benefits from a businessman in exchange for using his influence as governor to help that businessman obtain assistance from various state agencies. The federal statute at issue made it a crime for a public official to perform (or offer to perform) an “official act” in exchange for something of value. But the problem, as the Supreme Court saw it, was that the jury in McDonnell’s case was told an “official” act could include something like setting up a meeting, making an introduction, or speaking favorably about a project to the government official responsible for making the relevant decision. This understanding of “official act,” the Supreme Court said, was too broad. An “official act,” the Court held, involves “a formal exercise of governmental power,” and while this could include ordering or pressuring another official to take or refrain from some action, other activities, like “[s]etting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event—without more—does not fit that definition of ‘official act.’”
How big a deal was the McDonnell decision? In the immediate aftermath of the decision, many anticorruption activists decried the holding as permitting “[a]ctions by U.S. politicians that look wrong, smell wrong and raise profound ethical issues.” Indeed, many critics characterized the McDonnell decision as having effectively “legalized” all but the most egregious and clumsy forms of bribery (see, for example, here, here, here, and here.) However, as Professor Stephenson observed on this blog at the time, the McDonnell holding could be read more narrowly. The opinion did make prosecutors’ job somewhat more difficult in holding that merely setting up a meeting or speaking with subordinates would not, without more, count as “official acts,” but the opinion did not appear to rule out the possibility that an official act might include, for example, ordering or pressuring a subordinate to take some specific action on behalf of the bribe-payer. The jury instruction in McDonnell had been (in the Supreme Court’s view) overly broad, but most corruption prosecutions would probably still be able to proceed, so long as the jury was properly instructed. Professor Stephenson acknowledged at the time, though, that this “glass-half-full” view of McDonnell was only one possible reading, and that the decision might end up sweeping much more broadly in practice.
Now, over three years since McDonnell, what can we say about the decision’s impact? In the initial aftermath of the decision, it did indeed seem that McDonnell would prove a major impediment to corruption prosecutions. In the McDonnell case itself, the government decided not to retry McDonnell. This might be read as a tacit admission that under the Supreme Court’s newly-announced understanding of “official act,” the government probably wouldn’t be able to get a conviction. Furthermore, the decision was seen as triggering a string of significant defeats for public integrity prosecutors. For example: The government failed to obtain a guilty verdict against New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez on federal corruption charges (the trial ended in a hung jury, and the government subsequently dropped the case); a federal appeals court, citing McDonnell, vacated two hard-won guilty verdicts for corruption against the prominent New York politicians Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos; and federal prosecutors in New York decided not to pursue charges after a long public corruption investigation into New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, because of “the high burden of proof, the clarity of existing law” and the challenge of proving corruption without “evidence of personal profit.” The De Blasio case is especially pertinent given that two men, Harendra Singh and Jona S. Rechnitz, pled guilty to giving De Blasio’s campaign and Political Action Committee tens of thousands of dollars in return for the mayor helping them negotiate favorable settlements for businesses that owed the city millions in rent and property charges. Even with these two witnesses, prosecutors dropped the case because they appeared unsure Mayor De Blasio took an “official action” as defined in McDonnell.
But these initial indicators did not develop into a larger trend, and McDonnell has not turned out to be as much of an impediment to federal corruption prosecutions as some critics feared. Subsequent government prosecutions and court decisions have made this clear. Consider the following examples: Continue reading