Supreme Court to hear appeal of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell (C) pauses as he speaks to members of the media outside U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia after his sentencing was announced by a federal judge January 6, 2015, in Richmond, Virginia.

Story highlights

  • Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2014
  • He received money and loans from Jonnie R. Williams, the CEO Star Scientific, who was seeking state support in a bid to get FDA approval for a dietary supplement his company was developing called Anatabloc

Washington (CNN)The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear an appeal from former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, once a rising star in Republican politics, who was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2014.

It is unclear yet if the court will hear the case this term or next. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison but last August the Supreme Court granted an emergency motion allowing him to stay out of jail while the justices considered whether to take up the case.
"I am very grateful to the U.S. Supreme Court for its decision today to hear my case," McDonnell said in a statement Friday. "I am innocent of these crimes and ask the Court to reverse these convictions. I maintain my profound confidence in God's grace to sustain me and my family, and thank my friends and supporters across the country for their faithfulness over these past three years."
    The case essentially centers around the question of just what constitutes the scope of an "official action" under federal corruption law. In 2014, a federal jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia convicted him of 11 counts finding that he violated the law when he received money and loans from Jonnie R. Williams, the CEO of a Virginia based company called Star Scientic, in exchange for official acts. Williams was seeking state support in a bid to get FDA approval for a dietary supplement his company was developing called Anatabloc.
    "In 2011 and 2012," Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli wrote in Court briefs, "while petitioner was the Governor of Virginia, he and his wife Maureen McDonnell solicited and secretly accepted more than $175,000 in money and luxury goods from Jonnie Williams." The funds included loans, deluxe shopping trips, golf outings and a Rolex watch.
    "In exchange," Verrilli wrote McDonnell agreed to "help Williams seek favorable actions from the Virginia government."
    McDonnell's lawyers argue that the former governor's actions were limited to routine political courtesies such as arranging meetings, asking questions and attending events and that he never exercised any governmental power on behalf of Williams.
    In court papers they say that the lower court decision construed "official action" so broadly that it dramatically expanded federal corruption statutes in order to make "common place actions" federal felonies.
    "This is the first time in our history that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scales of any government decision," Noel J. Francisco, a lawyer for McDonnell wrote in court papers.
    Francisco also argued that the district court failed to adequately question prospective jurors about pretrial publicity.
    The Obama administration urged the Court to allow an opinion by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the district court ruling to stand.
    Verrilli said that the lower court got the decision right because the convictions were based on the "unexceptionable proposition that a public official violates federal corruption statutes where, as here, he accepts personal benefits in exchange for his agreement to influence government matters."

    What is corruption?

    Elected officials and campaign donors alike are carefully watching the case to see if the justices will clarify the scope of so-called "official action" under federal corruption law.
    "The Supreme Court's action today means that Governor McDonnell's prosecution will likely result in a landmark case clarifying where to draw the sometimes murky line between what is a mere political favor and what is illegal public corruption, said Barry Pollack, a lawyer with Miller & Chevalier who is following the case.
    McDonnell is supported by former federal officials, on both side of the political spectrum including former Attorney Generals Michael B. Mukasey, John Ashcroft who served in Republican administrations as well as Gregory B. Craig, former Counsel to President Barack Obama.
    "The law should not be broadened," they wrote in briefs, "to subject government officials to the threat of prosecution for engaging in innocent conduct that occurs on a routine basis."