Guest Post: What the McDonnell Ruling Means for Future Corruption Prosecutions

Ziran Zhang, an associate at Burnham & Gorokhov, PLLC, a Washington D.C. law firm, contributes the following guest post:

The Supreme Court’s decision last month in United States v. McDonnell has raised questions about the continued vitality of public corruption prosecutions in the United States. Some observers, including Professor Stephenson, pointed out that the decision itself was cast in narrow terms, and may not make a big difference to most public corruption cases.  I respectfully disagree: McDonnell created an important substantive rule of law that will have a lasting impact, and this impact is apparent when one applies McDonnell’s holding to another high-profile public corruption case—the prosecution of former New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez.

To prove a bribery offense, the government must show (among other things) that the public official promised an official act, defined further as a “decision or action” on a “question or matter” (or cause, proceeding, or suit). A “question or matter,” the McDonnell opinion holds, must be a “formal exercise of government power” that is “specific” and “concrete.” As for a “decision” or “action,” it can be direct (such as when an official issues an order or makes a decision) or indirect (such as when an official “exerts pressure” or “gives advice” to another official.) McDonnell left substantial uncertainty over what counts as “exerting pressure” or “giving advice.”  As Professor Stephenson’s post points out, pressure is inherent from any kind of contact between a subordinate and an official in high office, but in McDonnell the Supreme Court quite clearly rejected that view, indicating that something more is required.

So, how does the McDonnell holding affect the prosecution of Senator Menendez? The facts of the Menendez prosecution are remarkably similar to those of the McDonnell case. According to the indictment, Senator Menendez had a longstanding friendship with Dr. Salomon Melgen. Melgen gave Menendez gifts, such as free flights, luxury hotel stays, and money to various political campaigns benefiting Menendez; Menendez returned the favors in various ways: Continue reading

The Supreme Court’s McDonnell Opinion: A Post-Mortem

I’m a bit late to the party, but I thought I should perhaps say something about last month’s unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision to vacate the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, on the grounds that the trial judge had not properly instructed the jury on the meaning and scope of the term “official act” in the relevant anti-bribery statutes. (As readers of this blog are likely aware, I thought that McDonnell’s conviction ought to be affirmed. This is not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court’s views differ from my own, nor will it be the last.) There has already been a spate of helpful commentary on the decision—including a succinct summary of the opinion’s likely impact from the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, and an insightful commentary from Daniel Richman and Jennifer Rodgers on the NYU Compliance & Enforcement Blog (a new blog that’s worth following). I’m not sure I have all that much new to add, but let me throw in my two cents.

While it would have been satisfying to see McDonnell get his just desserts, what happens to McDonnell himself is less important that the broader impact of the decision on the enforcement of anti-bribery laws more generally. So what does the Supreme Court’s opinion portend for anti-bribery enforcement in the U.S. going forward? After reading the opinion, my reaction is mixed. On the one hand, the decision rests on fairly narrow grounds, which might well cabin its impact on the mine-run of federal bribery prosecutions. On the other hand, the Court’s opinion both bespeaks an unrealistic view of how senior politicians exert influence over policy, and places undue weight on concerns about chilling (allegedly) desirable conduct. Continue reading

Video: Columbia Law School Proxy Debate on McDonnell’s Bribery Appeal

As regular GAB readers know, we’ve had quite a bit of discussion on this blog about the case of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, and I’ve been particularly adamant in my views that the conviction ought to be affirmed. (See here, here, here, and here.) The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in McDonnell’s case tomorrow morning, and if anything interesting happens I may write about it again. In the meantime, while there won’t be a live audio or video of the Supreme Court argument, anyone who’s dying to hear some live debate about the legal argument is in luck! (Well, sort of.) A couple weeks ago the Columbia Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity hosted (in collaboration with the Columbia Federalist Society) a debate on the McDonnell case between John Malcolm, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and yours truly.

The full video is here. From my perspective, the most important exchange is at 47:13-50:38, where I put to Mr. Malcolm the question whether a federal crime would have been completed if the businessman (Jonnie Williams) and Governor McDonnell agreed that Mr. Williams would provide Governor McDonnell with valuable items (cash or the equivalent), and in exchange—as part of a quid pro quo—the governor would use his influence to get state medical institutions to perform expensive medical studies on the product Mr. Williams’ company produced. Mr. Malcolm concedes that the answer is yes: In that hypothetical example the “official act” element would be satisfied, so long as the quid pro quo is proved. (I make that initial point at 30:59-31:50 of the video and restate it, in the context of the adequacy of the jury instructions, at 34:57-35:32. But, again, the most important part of the exchange is at 47:13-50:38.)

To me, that concession ought to be the end of the argument. Mr. Malcolm’s argument, like that of Governor McDonnell’s lawyers, boils down to the claim that the particular steps that the governor took to try (unsuccessfully) to bring about those tests weren’t official acts (a conclusion, by the way, that I think is just wrong, but put that aside). But that doesn’t matter, because in this case there was an express quid pro quo involving a specific official act. Of course I’ve got my own strongly-held views on this. I leave it to interested readers to watch the video, and read the Supreme Court transcript once it’s available, and decide what you think.

One more aspect of the debate worth noting: In attempting to distinguish the McDonnell case from the Bob Menendez case and certain hypothetical examples I raised (see 38:53-40:25), Mr. Malcolm suggested, as a distinction, that the federal bribery statutes don’t apply if the subject of the quid pro quo is a matter that is not yet pending before the government (see 42:15-45:52 and 45:55-46:21). I didn’t have time to respond to that suggestion during the event itself, nor is it (to my knowledge) an argument that McDonnell’s lawyers have raised in their briefs, but for what it’s worth, I think the claim is inconsistent with the relevant statutes. Notably, 18 U.S.C. 201(a)(3) defines “official act” as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit” (emphasis added). Seems clear to me that a promised act can still be “official” even if the matter concerns an action that is not yet pending, but that may be pending in the future, or that could be brought before an official, even if it has not yet been. I suspect Mr. Malcolm may have been improvising a bit here–neither of us had the statute in front of us or committed to memory. In any event, the difficulties in a holding that the federal bribery statutes don’t apply as long as the subject of the quid pro quo is not yet formally pending before the government at the time the bribe takes place ought to be too obvious to belabor.

More on McDonnell: Can We Please Get the Facts Straight?

As many GAB readers know, we’ve had quite a number of posts over the last year about the ongoing legal drama surrounding the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell on federal corruption charges (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court (to my chagrin) announced that it would hear Governor McDonnell’s appeal; the Court will address only the question of whether the “official action” required for a conviction under the federal anti-bribery statutes “is limited to exercising actual governmental power, threatening to exercise such power, or pressuring others to exercise such power, and whether the jury must be so instructed; or, if not so limited, whether [these statutes] are unconstitutional.”

I don’t want to spend too much time repeating my arguments as to why I think that upholding Governor McDonnell’s conviction is both the legally correct answer under existing U.S. law as it stands, and why a contrary conclusion would be a major setback for efforts to combat high-level bribery, particularly of public officials who can wield considerable influence over official decisions even without exercising the formal powers of their offices (for more on my views, see here, here, and here). Yet I continue to find myself somewhere between baffled and outraged by the mischaracterizations of what the jury and lower courts actually found, with respect to what Governor McDonnell (and his wife) did. To read the Court of Appeals opinion (which the Supreme Court will now review), and the briefs filed on Governor McDonnell’s behalf, and the various op-eds written by his supporters, is to be on two different planets. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Blagojevich Case and the Line Between Corruption and Horse-Trading

Jennifer Rodgers and Jacob Watkins, respectively Executive Director and Program Coordinator for the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), contribute the following guest post:

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was recently back in the news, but this time for something he didn’t do wrong, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated 5 of the 18 counts on which Blagojevich was convicted in 2011. The appellate court’s decision hinged upon the distinction between illegal corruption and legal (if distasteful) political horse-trading, an issue recently touched upon in the decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to uphold former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s public corruption convictions (which Matthew discussed here). The outcome of the Blagojevich appeal shows that under current U.S. law, whether or not a public official’s deal-making is illegal depends upon what exactly the official is bargaining for. Political horse-trading–exchanging one official act for another official act–is not a crime under U.S. federal law, but exchanging an official act for a private benefit is. The decision in the Blagojevich provides a useful opportunity for thinking more generally about how the law ought to draw that difficult line. Continue reading

Why Bob McDonnell’s Bribery Conviction Should Be Affirmed

One of the most high-profile public corruption cases in the United States in the last couple of years (and alas, there’s some competition for that honor) is that of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell—a case that both Rick and Jordan have written insightfully about before. Governor McDonnell was convicted of violating federal anticorruption laws by accepting cash, loans, and lavish gifts from a local businessman, Jonnie Williams, in exchange for helping Mr. Williams secure research studies of his dietary supplement product at state institutions. Governor McDonnell assisted Mr. Williams’ efforts by arranging meetings, recommending that other state officials meet with Mr. Williams about his product (using language indicating that Governor McDonnell supported and encouraged use of the product), and encouraging state officials to arrange for the research studies sought by Mr. Williams.

Governor McDonnell appealed his conviction, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard oral arguments in his appeal last week. (I can’t find a written transcript online yet, but you can listen to an audio recording of the argument here.) The governor’s primary argument on appeal is that he did not violate the relevant federal statutes because he did not perform any “official acts” on behalf of Mr. Williams. Interestingly, Governor McDonnell’s appeal has attracted support from a broad range of criminal law experts, including my Harvard Law School colleagues Professor (and retired Judge) Nancy Gertner and Professor Charles Ogletree. Judge Gertner and Professor Ogletree, along with Virginia Law School Professor John Jeffries, filed an amicus brief contending, in essence: (1) the things that Mr. Williams got from Governor McDonnell were not specific government decisions, but rather “access and ingratiation,” which do not count as “official acts,” and which the Supreme Court has said are not corrupt; (2) the broader definition of “official acts” accepted by the trial court (and reflected in its jury instructions) would render the anti-bribery statutes at issue so broad and vague as to violate constitutional Due Process rights.

Judge Gertner, Professor Ogletree, and Professor Jeffries are among the most distinguished criminal law experts in the United States. They have decades of experience practicing and writing about these issues at the highest levels, whereas I’m a comparative novice in this area, with zero practice experience. If they think one thing, and I think another, it would probably be a smart bet that they’re right and I’m wrong. All that said, I disagree quite strongly with the analysis in their brief.

A blog post is not the place to get into a detailed discussion of the nuances of the law, and this issue may seem rather parochial, especially to our non-American readers. But I actually think that the main problems with the Gertner-Ogletree-Jeffries (GOJ) brief stem from an important conceptual confusion that has implications well beyond this case, and perhaps outside of the U.S. as well. So with full recognition that I’m risking personal embarassment in advancing what might turn out to be a misguided critique, let me explain why I found the GOJ brief (and Governor McDonnell’s lawyer’s arguments along the same lines) unconvincing: Continue reading

Prosecuting Elected Officials for Corruption: A Tale of Four Governors

As Phil and Rick pointed out a few months ago, America’s domestic anti-bribery laws and the attendant court interpretations are, for lack of a better term, a hot mess. In principle, the crime of bribery is straightforward: To secure a conviction, the prosecutor need only convince the jury that (1) there was some agreement (explicit or otherwise) whereby (2) the official would receive something of value (3) in exchange for using his official position in some manner. Unfortunately, though, that burden of proof often becomes far more complicated when the alleged bribe recipient is a high-ranking elected official. When a politician regularly solicits campaign contributions and simultaneously wields political influence to the benefit of constituents, it is often hard to see where politics ends and corruption begins. And after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in cases like Citizens United and Skilling, prosecutors are left wondering when the corrupting influence of money on politics can still be prosecuted as “corruption.”

Today, I want to step back from this confusion and distill a few lessons that I believe still hold true for any US prosecutor investigating an elected official for bribery. To do that, I consider allegations that have been made against four past and present governors — Rod Blagojevich (Illinois), Andrew Cuomo (New York), Don Siegelman (Alabama), and Robert McDonnell (Virginia) — and ask one loaded question: what does it take to prove that an elected official misused his position in exchange for something of value?

Continue reading