The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday tossed out the bribery conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, who was found guilty of accepting thousands of dollars in cash and gifts. The decision rejected the federal government's view of how broadly federal bribery laws can reach. And it spares McDonnell from having to report to prison to serve a two-year sentence.
It's been nearly two years since a jury found former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) guilty on 11 criminal counts, including charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to obtain property to which he was not entitled. It was a stunning fall from grace for a man who was once a rising star in Republican politics, and the verdict raised the prospect of McDonnell spending many years behind bars.
But in an unexpected twist, that's not going to happen. NBC News' Pete Williams reported this morning from the Supreme Court:
The entirety of the ruling is online here.
For those who might need a refresher, it's been well documented that McDonnell and his wife accepted lavish gifts from a dietary supplement executive named Jonnie Williams Sr. during the Republican governor's four-year tenure. After benefiting from Williams' generosity, McDonnell used his office to intervene on behalf of his wealthy benefactor.
But for the Supreme Court, the nature of this intervention wasn't as clear cut as prosecutors and jurors believed.
What's not in dispute is the list of "gifts" McDonnell received while in office. The Virginian received vacations, trips on a private jet, use of a Ferrari, an engraved gold Rolex, high-end clothing, thousands of dollars in golf equipment, and much, much more. We already know all of this for fact.
The wrinkle, evidently, is with the other half of the quid-pro-quo. According to the Supreme Court, the governor didn't do enough to meet the threshold for corruption.
"Setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or calling an official (or agreeing to do so) merely to talk about a research study or to gather additional information," does not meet the definition of "an official act," the court wrote.
The justices did not throw out the case, but they sent it back to a lower court having gutted the heart of the prosecutors' case. As Pete Williams' report noted, "Prosecutors could seek to put McDonnell on trial again but with different jury instructions on the definition of corruption," but retrying this case will now be very difficult.
What's worth watching, meanwhile, is the implication of today's decision: won't this make prosecuting corruption vastly harder? In the case against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), for example, the Washington Post's Mike DeBonis noted that the Justice Department filed charges because the senator wrote letters on behalf of a donor, made some calls, and set up some meetings. According to the Supreme Court, as of today, none of these steps should be seen as "official acts" in a corruption case.
Is that case poised to unravel? Expect a whole lot of defense attorneys to give today's ruling a very close look.