Don’t Be Fooled: Bob McDonnell’s Supporters Want To Legalize Bribery of Senior Government Officials

Last week, as many readers (at least those who follow corruption issues in the U.S.) are probably aware, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order allowing former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to remain free on bail while his appeal is pending, a signal that the Supreme Court is likely to hear his case. As readers of the blog are also likely aware, I think that the appeals court that affirmed McDonnell’s bribery conviction decided correctly, meaning that the Supreme Court should either decline to hear the case, or should take it and affirm it. I really don’t think I have much more to say about the substance of the legal issues, and I wouldn’t bother posting about it again, except that an op-ed in last week’s Washington Post (by C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush) got me so bloody angry that I just have to weigh in on this again, if only to point out the absurd consequences of the position advocated by Mr. Gray and others who argue that the conviction should be overturned.

The linchpin of Mr. Gray’s argument is that the alleged “official acts” that Governor McDonnell provided to private businessman Jonnie Williams (in exchange for lavish gifts, loans, and other tangible benefits) were “nothing more than speaking with aides and arranging a single meeting between an aide and [Mr. Williams],” and that criminalizing such routine conversations and meetings would be absurd. Described that way, McDonnell’s acts do indeed sound innocuous. But Mr. Gray’s characterization is so flagrantly misleading that there’s only one word to describe it, and it’s not a word I can use on a family blog. Continue reading

A Victory for the Government, Justice, and Common Sense, in the Bob McDonnell Appeal

Over the past year, we had a few posts (from Jordan, Rick, and myself) about former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s appeal of his federal bribery convictions. All of us took the position that McDonnell’s main argument on appeal—that his actions on behalf of a local businessman were not “official acts” (and that the loans and lavish gifts this businessman provided were merely for “ingratiation and access”)—was inconsistent both with the governing law and with the facts as presented in the trial record. (Lots of people, though, including two distinguished criminal law experts on my faculty, took the contrary position.) The issue is important not just for U.S. political and legal junkies, but also because the McDonnell appeal raises more general issues about how we think about the line between illegal corruption and legal (though perhaps sleazy) political wheeling & dealing.

As many readers are no doubt aware, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided the case earlier this month. And while courts don’t always get it right, this time they did: The three-judge panel unanimously rejected all of McDonnell’s arguments, and cogently explained why in this case the evidence was more than sufficient to support a corruption conviction. Indeed, while there are indeed hard questions about the appropriate line between legal and illegal forms of private influence on public officials, the McDonnell case was not even particularly close to that line.

A few quick observations about the Court of Appeal’ opinion: Continue reading

An (Un)Appealing Argument: Why Bob McDonnell Shouldn’t Get His Hopes Up

If former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell is certain of anything, it’s that he never actually abused the powers of his office for the benefit of Jonnie Williams. Forget about the $170,000 or so in loans and gifts Williams extended to Virginia’s first family; “McDonnell’s last line of defense,” as Rick has noted, “[is] that the favors he did for Williams were not part of his official duties as governor.”  In other words, McDonnell believes that his influence peddling on behalf of Williams — in return for Williams’s financial “assistance” — did not amount to “the performance of an official act,” as required by federal bribery law.

Unfortunately for McDonnell, the judge overseeing his trial disagreed and refused to instruct the jury — as McDonnell had requested — that “merely arranging a meeting, attending an event, hosting a reception, or making a speech are not, standing alone, ‘official acts.’”  Instead, Judge Spencer adopted the prosecution’s understanding that federal bribery law encompasses quid pro quo arrangements involving the performance of either (1) a public official’s statutory duties or (2) those settled practices “‘that a public official customarily performs’ even if they are not prescribed in law.”  Not to be deterred, the former Governor thinks he has a strong case for challenging this instruction on appeal.  Here’s why he’s wrong.

Continue reading