RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Forty-four former state attorneys general urged a federal appeals court Monday to toss out former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's public corruption convictions.
In a friend-of-the court brief, the 23 Democrats and 21 Republicans argued that McDonnell was convicted based on an overly broad definition of an "official act" in federal bribery laws.
"At the very least, it empowers federal prosecutors to charge state officials with crimes for routine political pleasantries, casting a fog over every dinner with a constituent or appearance at a fundraiser," they wrote.
A jury in September found McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of doing favors for a nutritional supplements executive in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans. The former governor was sentenced to two years in prison. His wife was sentenced to one year and one day. Both are free on bond while they appeal.
According to testimony at the six-week trial, McDonnell arranged meetings with administration officials for Jonnie Williams while the then-Star Scientific Inc. CEO was seeking state-backed research for his signature product, the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc. McDonnell, once widely considered a possible Mitt Romney GOP running mate, also attended events promoting Anatabloc and hosted a product launch event at the Executive Mansion.
The former attorneys general said those activities amounted to "ingratiation and access and nothing more." They said if the convictions stand, attorneys general will be hard-pressed to advise their clients "whether activities previously thought innocent now carry the threat of federal criminal liability."
However, prosecutors have argued that the low-interest loans and extravagant gifts — including about $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories, a $6,500 Rolex watch and $15,000 for a daughter's wedding expenses — made the McDonnells' efforts on behalf of Williams illegal, even though the executive never received anything tangible in return. They previously said in court papers that the McDonnells engaged in a "quid pro quo bribe scheme that satisfies any reasonable definition of corruption."
The arguments made by the former attorneys general largely mirror those made by McDonnell in his appeal.
Six former Virginia attorneys general — four Democrats and two Republicans — filed a separate friend-of-the-court brief. They said that as attorneys general, they would not have concluded that the sort of actions undertaken by McDonnell were illegal.
Two groups of law professors — a total of 20 — and a group of 120 business and "public policy leaders" also filed a brief siding with McDonnell on the official acts issue. Ben Jealous, former national president of the NAACP, said in a brief that the trial judge did not do enough to ensure that the jury was not influenced by intensive pretrial news coverage of the case.