Court vacates former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell’s convictions
RICHMOND, Va. — The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond has vacated the conviction of former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell.
McDonnell’s attorneys filed a request for her convictions to be vacated after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of her husband, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, and sent his case back to the Fourth Circuit for review.
Maureen’s legal team argued if there was not enough evidence to convict Bob McDonnell, then the same was true in her case.
Maureen McDonnell had been convicted on eight of 13 corruption-related counts when her trial concluded September 4, 2014. Bob McDonnell was convicted on 11 of 13 counts during the same trial.
The Fourth Circuit will ultimately decide whether there will be a new trail for the McDonnells or if the charges would be dismissed.
An August 29 deadline was established for federal prosecutors and McDonnell attorney to submit briefings on how they want to proceed.
On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously threw out former governor McDonnell’s conviction.
“Because the jury was not correctly instructed on the meaning of ‘official act,’ it may have convicted Governor McDonnell for conduct that is not unlawful,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “For that reason, we cannot conclude that the errors in the jury instructions were ‘harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.’ We accordingly vacate Governor McDonnell’s convictions.”
At issue is what constitutes the scope of “official action” under federal corruption law.
In 2014, McDonnell was convicted of 11 counts by a federal jury that found that he violated the law when he and his wife received money and loans (around $175,000 and a Rolex watch) from Jonnie R. Williams, the CEO of a Virginia based company called Star Scientific. Williams at the time was seeking state support in a bid to get FDA approval for a dietary supplement his company was developing called Antabloc.
The government argued that McDonnell received loans, deluxe shopping trips and golf outings and in return used the power of his office to help Williams’ company.
McDonnell — who attended oral arguments with his wife Maureen — asked the Supreme Court to reverse his conviction. In 2015, he had been on the verge of reporting to prison for his two-year sentence when the court allowed him to stay out of jail pending his appeal.
McDonnell’s lawyers argued that his actions were limited to routine political courtesies and he never put his thumb on a scale by exercising government power on Williams’ behalf.
The case centered around the question of what constitutes the scope of an “official action” under federal corruption law — and at oral arguments several justices searched for the proper line to draw between the regular activities of a politician, and actions that could violate corruption laws.
Public officials, as well as those who appear before them have been carefully watching the case to see the boundaries they face when interacting with constituents, donors and business leaders.
McDonnell’s lawyers said that the governor’s actions were limited to routine political courtesies such as arranging meetings, asking questions and attending events and that he never exercised any government power on behalf of Williams.
Noel Francisco, a lawyer for McDonnell, argued that the lower courts stretched “corruption laws beyond recognition.”
“This case marks 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,” Francisco argued in court papers. Francisco told the justices that in order someone to violate the law, they would need to either make a decision on behalf of the government or try to use his influence to pressure another person with governmental power to make a decision on an action.
He said that the government’s position in the case puts “every federal, state and local official nationwide in its prosecutorial crosshairs.”
At oral arguments, justices also questioned the scope of federal laws prosecutors used to convict McDonnell and struggled with where the line is between routine political action and the “official act” that would trigger corruption statutes.
Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that former White House counsels on both sides of the aisle argued in a brief that if the lower court decision is upheld it would, “cripple the ability of elected officials to fulfill their role in a representative democracy.”
The skepticism cut across the bench, with more liberal Justice Stephen Breyer being the most vigorous questioner of the government and expressing concern that the Justice Department could wield “enormous power” and that prosecutors could be “overly zealous.” He also repeatedly stressed concern that such laws could put at risk “behavior that is common.”
CNN Wire contributed to this report.