McDonnell v. US: SCOTUS Explains “Official Act”

It had been unclear how the corruption case against former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell would resolve. From the facts, he looked pretty guilty.

McDonnell had been indicted by the Federal Government for fraud and extortion. It was alleged that he had accepted nearly $200,000 in loans and gifts from Jonnie Williams, who was CEO of Star Scientific. Williams sought to move forward on research studies that would benefit Star Scientific; the studies would ideally be done at Virginia’s public universities. Williams asked for McDonnell’s help. McDonnell agreed to introduce Williams to Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources. After more gifting from Williams, McDonnell hosted a lunch event for Star Scientific at the Governor’s Mansion. The event was designed to encourage Virginia public university researchers to receive free samples of a Star Scientific product. At the event, Williams distributed eight $25,000 checks that researchers could use to fund the preparation of grant proposals for studying Star Scientific’s product. McDonnell’s wife (“Mrs. McDonnell”), also a defendant in the corruption case, offered to help Williams with promoting a product of Star Scientific in exchange for a $15,000 gift to help pay for her daughter’s wedding as well as a $50,000 loan to help with the McDonnell’s struggling rental properties.

In order to properly convict McDonnell, the Government was required to show that he committed (or agreed to commit) an “official act” in exchange for the loans and gifts. An “official act” is a decision on any matter or proceeding which may be brought before a public official, in such person’s official capacity.

Did McDonnell officially act as a result of the “bribes”?

No, according to the Supreme Court of the United States in McDonnell v. United States.

Writing the opinion for the unanimous court, Chief Justice Roberts found that simply arranging for a meeting or hosting an event (as McDonnell did to the benefit of Williams) does not qualify as a matter under the definition of “official act.” It was just a meeting; it was just an event. If, on the other hand, McDonnell moved forward in initiating a research study on behalf of Star Scientific or pressured another public official to perform in some way on behalf of Star Scientific, that would sufficiently constitute an “official act” under the applicable statute. In sum, according to the Court, an official act must involve a formal exercise of governmental power; the public official must make a decision or take an action (or agree to do so).

Chief Justice Roberts concluded:

“There is no doubt this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”

About the Author – Dara Lovitz

Dara Lovitz is the author of Muzzling A Movement: The Effects of Anti-Terrorism Law, Money, and Politics on Animal Activism (2010) and Catching Falling Cradles: A Gentle Approach to Classic Rhymes (2014), Adjunct Professor of Animal Law at Temple University Beasley School of Law, and CLE Project Coordinator for American Law Institute CLE. She is a founding member of the non-profit organization Peace Advocacy Network.

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