The Supreme Court Monday vacated the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, raising new questions about how three major political corruption cases in New York and New Jersey could be prosecuted.
In the McDonnell case, the justices voted 8-0 to narrow the definition of the kind of acts needed to prove corruption and to require that prosecutors must show the public official made a conscious decision to act.
The ruling called the governor’s actions distasteful or worse, but still sent the case back to the 4th Circuit to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant a new trial under the narrower definition of corruption.
“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,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this court.”
The ruling said in part that it is a crime if prosecutors can show the official entered into an agreement to act in exchange for the gifts.
The ruling could be good news for embattled Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who was charged with corruption for allegedly accepting gifts like free vacations from a Florida eye doctor. Prosecutors said he used his office to try to help that doctor with business deals and to pressure officials who were reviewing allegations of Medicare funding abuses by the doctor.
Former independent counsel Robert Ray said the Supreme Court decision Monday could be seen as good news for the senator.
"I don’t think it will gut the government’s case but it will just make it more difficult to prove Menendez guilty," Ray said.
Menendez was already appealing to have the case thrown out under a different standard – the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause. His lawyer Abbe Lowell said the new ruling could also benefit the senator.
“The Supreme Court made clear again today that the everyday actions of public officials like setting up meetings, making phones calls and advocating for people, issues or causes is not a crime. We are looking at the language of the Court as against the issues in our case because it appears that the Supreme Court has now significantly narrowed the law.”
A Justice Department spokesman, Mark Abueg, declined to comment on the Menendez case.
Legal expert Ray said he also expects the convictions of former New York state Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver (D-NY) and former New York state Senate leader Dean Skelos (Rspe-Nassau) to be vacated by an appeals court under the new corruption standards set by the Supreme Court.
Ray said to expect both convicted politicians to get new trials because the jury were now likely “defective” – that corruption may have been defined to the jury too broadly in those cases.
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, "While we are reviewing the McDonnell decision, the official actions that led to the convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos fall squarely within the definition set forth by the Supreme Court today."
An attorney for Skelos declined to comment.
Silver’s attorney said, ”The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision today in the McDonnell case makes clear that federal government has gone too far in prosecuting state officials for conduct that is part of the everyday functioning of those in elected office. The McDonnell decision will be central to Mr. Silver’s appeal.”
McDonnell, a Republican, was accused of taking $175,000 in cash and gifts which were legal under Virginia state law at the time. McDonnell arranged meetings and attended events with the businessman who gave him the gifts.
McDonnell’s lawyers had argued there was no quid pro quo and thus there was no corruption.