Defense argues to overturn Virginia ex-governor's corruption convictions

Reuters News
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Posted: May 12, 2015 2:28 PM

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court heard arguments on Tuesday to overturn former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell's 11 federal convictions for public corruption.

Arguments before the three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals centered on whether prosecutors' definition of what was an "official act" was overly broad or whether jurors were influenced by news reports about the case.

McDonnell, a Republican, and his estranged wife, Maureen, were convicted in September of taking gifts and loans totaling $177,000 from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. to promote a dietary supplement called Anatabloc.

“Under the government’s broad theme, if (McDonnell) set up a meeting or posed for a picture with Jonnie Williams, he committed a crime,” defense attorney Noel Francisco said.

McDonnell, 60, was sentenced in January to two years in federal prison. His wife was convicted of eight counts and was sentenced to 12 months and one day. Both are appealing their convictions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Cooke rejected Francisco’s contention that the former governor’s actions toward Williams were not official acts, but routine courtesies that any officeholder would have extended.

"They are saying that meetings and events are not official acts and that is not correct,” Cooke said.

Presiding Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said that what McDonnell got as a result of helping Williams was “much thinner” than the largesse received by other government officials convicted of corruption.

"When you see $177,000 in cash and loans and gifts, that’s motivation," Cooke said.

Francisco also said jurors should have been questioned more thoroughly about what effect pre-trial publicity had on them.

But Cooke argued that jurors had been questioned by the trial judge about whether they thought they could render a fair verdict and the jurors indicated they could.

The judges did not indicate when a ruling might come.

During the trial, defense attorneys blamed Maureen McDonnell’s taste for high living, and what they called her “crush” on Williams, for most of the former governor’s troubles.

Looking tanned and fit in a dark suit, McDonnell sat in the appeals court hearing surrounded by family members, including his five children and his wife.

When he left the courthouse, McDonnell told reporters that he knew “in my heart and soul” that he had not violated the law.

McDonnell, once a rising star in the Republican Party, is the first Virginia governor to be convicted of bribe-taking. He served as governor from January 2010 to January 2014.

(Editing by Ian Simpson and Bill Trott)