Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was convicted last year of honest services wire fraud, a vague law that the Supreme Court saved from constitutional challenge by redefining it to outlaw bribery and kickbacks by public officials. Unlike the standard anti-political bribery statute, 18 USC 201, honest services wire fraud covers misconduct by state officials. (There was already a federal law that typically applied to state officials, 18 USC 666–but no matter, the Supreme Court did what it did.)
So Bob McDonnell was charged with the honest devices wire fraud, which required the government to prove that he corruptly accepted personal payments in exchange for his performance of an “official act.”
At trial, the government argued that the following acts were “official acts”:
- Asking an aide a question about research pertaining to a businessman’s company.
- Attending two receptions the businessman attended.
- Arranging a meeting with his staff and the businessman and suggesting another meeting to an aide.
The government argued that these acts were official acts because the governor’s ultimate aim was to obtain state government funding for the businessman’s business.
It bears mentioning that the businessman provided numerous things of value to the governor and his wife. But that alone is far from federal bribery. In fact, in Virginia, there is no prohibition on giving gifts to government officials.
So the issue is not whether the conduct is morally correct, but rather whether Mr. McDonnell could have reasonably foreseen that the acts listed above–setting up meetings an so forth–constitute “official acts” under federal bribery law.
A foundational principle of our democracy is that a person cannot go to prison for conduct if they could not have reasonably foreseen that the behavior was criminal. This fair warning requirement of due process is violated most often in public prosecutions, where prosecutors know that the public will find the political sausage-making distasteful. It is for this reason that Justice Scalia warned that honest services wire fraud statute “invites abuse by headline-grabbing prosecutors in pursuit of local officials, state legislators and corporate C.E.O.’s who engage in any manner of unappealing or ethically questionable conduct.”
Because Virginia law does not prohibit the payments in question, and because a reasonable person would not have fair warning that that above acts are official acts–like decisions to award a contract to a certain firm or to veto a law–31 current governors; 60 former state attorneys general; 13 former federal officials, including two former U.S. attorneys general and former legal counsels to every president starting with Ronald Reagan; and three law professors from Harvard University and the University of Virginia all have urged the Supreme Court to overturn McDonnell’s conviction.
We agree. The Supreme Court is poised to consider tomorrow whether to take up the case. We will continue to follow this important case in the area of political corruption law.
The Raleigh criminal defense firm of CHESHIRE PARKER SCHNEIDER & BRYAN handles all types of public corruption cases, including bribery and honest services wire fraud charges. If you are facing prosecution, contact one of our Raleigh criminal defense lawyers today.