Instead of running his own 2016 Republican campaign for presidential nominee, former Republican Governor and once rising GOP star Bob McDonnell will be awaiting the outcome on his Supreme Court hearing on April 27. McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted at trial of receiving gifts and loans in exchange for official government assistance to Star Scientific, the dietary supplement company, of businessman Jonnie Williams, Sr. A federal appeals court upheld their convictions. So now their last Hail Mary is with the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court vacancy may seal his fate.
The gifts from businessman Williams ranged from golf outings, catering for their daughter’s wedding, 2 loans, expensive shopping sprees to New York for Mrs. McDonnell, a Rolex watch and an assortment of other gifts, including as specifically outlined in the indictment, as follow:
- $50,000 loan, without loan papers, used to pay of the McDonnell’s’ credit card debt
- $20,000 additional loan
- $15,000 payment to a caterer for the McDonell’s daughter’s wedding
- Round trip tickets for the McDonnell’s daughters to attend an out of town bachelorette party
- A lavish shopping spree in New York for Mrs. McDonnell to buy couture designer clothing and accessories for the Governor’s inauguration
- A Rolex watch, specifically requested by Mrs. McDonnell to be engraved for her husband, after seeing one on Williams’ arm
- Golf outings costing thousands of dollars
- Use of private jets
- Shares of stock
The prosecution contended and the jury convicted the McDonnells of receiving the gifts in exchange for allowing Williams’ business Star Scientific to produce the launch of its business and product at the VA governor’s mansion and potentially use Virginia employees in clinical trials of the dietary supplement, thereby defrauding Virginia taxpayers. From looking at the gifts, it looks as if the case was open and shut. And so the question becomes why the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments.
The defense portrayed Maureen McDonnell as an overzealous wife and as the “fall woman”, throwing her under the bus for his transgressions. McDonnell maintained his innocence and contends that he did not do anything official in exchange for the gifts given to him. Williams for his testimony received immunity and no jail time. Maureen McDonnell was sentenced to one year and one day. And Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years in federal prison- far less than the almost 10 years requested by the prosecution. Both have remained free pending the final outcome.
As his political case heads to the Supreme Court on Thursday, it goes before a possible tie decision among the justices. And if the justices split along party lines of 4-4, the federal appeals court decision will stand and both McDonnells will be headed to a federal prison.
McDonnell wants the Supreme Court to agree with him that in accepting the gifts, he did not violate the law. His lawyers assert that the former governor did not perform any “official actions” or use “actual government power”; Instead they argue that the former governor only arranged meetings, attended events and the most routine political activities. Hence the argument is McDonnell did political business as usual.
While McDonnell did not overtly state he used any political favors in exchange for Williams’ gifts, a launch of a business at the governor’s mansion is a favor, not likely to be received by most people- just for the asking. And attending functions where Williams would not have ordinarily been invited to are circumstantial evidence of a political favor. The nature of the continued gifts over a period of time and the activities afforded to Williams is minimally enough to uphold the conviction. It is true that McDonnell received far more than perhaps what Williams got in exchange for his gifts. However, the quid pro quo or exchange does not need to be equal for a bribery conviction to be upheld.
McDonnell and his wife’s convictions should be upheld. If not, then anyone with money can buy political favors, however small and call it “politics as usual” without fear of criminal prosecution. The Supreme Court may have taken this case to show that any amount of money in exchange for any political favor, however slight, is corruption. If not, then our entire political system will be deemed more corrupt and rigged than most people already believe. And special interest groups will become bolder in cashing in on political favors and stating “business as usual.”
UPDATE: At oral arguments held on April 27, the justices on both sides of the political spectrum seemed inclined to lean towards McDonnell’s position–as setting up meetings is nothing out of the ordinary. A decision will be rendered by the end of June.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, member of the Supreme Court bar, legal analyst and former prosecutor. Her Op Ed articles appear in the Washington Post, Huffington Post and Baltimore Sun. She appears on air on Al Jazeera, BET, CBS News, C-Span, Fox 5 DC, MSNBC, Sky News, PBS, among others.