WASHINGTON (AP) — A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday threw out the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in a ruling that could make it tougher to prosecute elected officials accused of corruption.
Chief Justice John Roberts said McDonnell's conduct in accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement may have been "distasteful" or even "tawdry," but didn't necessarily violate federal bribery laws.
McDonnell, once a rising star in the Republican Party, was found guilty in 2014 and sentenced to two years in prison, but was allowed to remain free while the justices weighed his appeal. The case now returns to lower courts to decide whether prosecutors have enough evidence to try McDonnell again.
At issue was a law that bars public officials from taking gifts in exchange for "official action." McDonnell said he never took any official action to benefit Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams or pressured other state officials to do so. McDonnell claims he did nothing except set up meetings and make some calls for constituent who asked for help.
Prosecutors insisted that McDonnell accepted personal benefits with the understanding that he would use the power of the governor's office to help Williams.
But Roberts agreed with McDonnell that the instructions to his trial jury about what constitutes "official acts" was so broad that it could include virtually any action a public official might take while in office. That could leave politicians across the country subject to the whims of prosecutors, he said.
"Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more —does not fit that definition of official act," Roberts wrote.
"There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that," he wrote. "But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns," a reference to some of the expensive gifts McDonnell received. "It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government's boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute."
In a statement, McDonnell thanked the justices and said he has not and would not "betray the sacred trust" of the Virginia people. He said he hoped the matter will soon be over so that he and his family can begin to rebuild their lives.
McDonnell's attorney Noel Francisco called the decision a "home run" and said it was unlikely a new trial would go forward.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
McDonnell's wife, Maureen, also was convicted of corruption and was sentenced to a year in prison. Her appeal has been on hold while the Supreme Court considered her husband's case. Her attorney, William Burck, said Monday's ruling "requires that her conviction immediately be tossed out as well."
In his opinion, Roberts noted that McDonnell had won the support of several influential former White House attorneys — both Democrats and Republicans — as well as dozens of state attorneys general. Those officials told the court that upholding McDonnell's conviction would cripple the ability of elected officials to do their jobs.
The ruling could affect the cases of governors, senators and other elected officials who either are under indictment or have been convicted. In New York, for example, a federal judge said last month that former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, convicted of illegally pocketing $5 million, could wait until after the Supreme Court ruling to report to prison.
The U.S. Attorney's office in the Southern District of New York issued a statement Monday saying Silver's case satisfies the high court's standards.
Tara Malloy, deputy executive director of the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, said the ruling "makes it even more difficult to protect our democracy from attempts by officeholders to peddle political access and influence to the highest bidder."
There is no dispute that McDonnell received multiple payments and gifts from Williams, which was not illegal at the time under Virginia ethics laws.
The gifts included nearly $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories for McDonnell's wife, a $6,500 engraved Rolex watch, $15,000 in catering for their daughter's wedding, and free family vacations and golf trips for their boys. Williams also provided three loans totaling $120,000.
As the gifts came in, McDonnell helped set up meetings with state health officials, appeared at promotional events and even hosted a launch luncheon for the dietary supplement at the governor's mansion. Williams was seeking state money and the credibility of Virginia's universities to perform clinical research that would support his company's drug.
A federal appeals court unanimously had upheld the former governor's convictions last year.
McDonnell insists that he never put any pressure on state officials and that Williams ultimately never got the official action he wanted — state funding for medical studies on the dietary pills. The former governor argued the Justice Department was unfairly criminalizing "everyday acts" that are a typical part of the job.
Roberts agreed that the government's position "could cast a pall of potential prosecution" over public officials interacting with the people they serve.
"The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns," Roberts said.
Some experts said the ruling may not be a major obstacle to future corruption prosecutions.
Charles James, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said the McDonnell case was a "rather aggressive and expansive view" of bribery laws and predicted more routine cases "will still be fodder for federal prosecutors."
Associated Press Writers Eric Tucker and Alanna Durkin Richer in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.