Supreme Court expresses extreme skepticism over Gov. McDonnell's conviction

Supreme Court expresses extreme skepticism over Gov. McDonnell's conviction
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell thanked his wife and legal team outside the Supreme Court. (Source: NBC12)
Former Virginia Gov. McDonnell exits the Supreme Court after a hearing on his corruption conviction. (Source: NBC12)
Former Virginia Gov. McDonnell exits the Supreme Court after a hearing on his corruption conviction. (Source: NBC12)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WWBT) - Several US Supreme Court justices expressed considerable skepticism with the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell on Wednesday, saying the laws he broke could be considered unconstitutionally vague.

Justice Stephen Breyer led the charge against the government's case saying he had a "real separation of powers problem" with the existing corruption statute the former governor was convicted."Political figures will not know what to do if this conviction stands. The Department of Justice will become the ultimate arbiter of politicians in public life," argued Justice Breyer. "The power that could be awarded to prosecutors would be dangerous."

In what is being seen as an excellent day for the former governor, Justice John Roberts also felt the laws as currently written in the Commonwealth may not provide sufficient specificity for McDonnell's conviction to stand.

We seem to be having so much trouble finding the line here that the statute could be unconstitutionally vague," said Justice Roberts.

Justice Anthony Kennedy also said prosecutors had given "no workable standard" of what an official act should be.

"I've got the most amazing friends in the world and have felt more love and support in the last two years than any time in my life. I'm a very blessed man," said McDonnell. "I've given my life to public service for 38 years and have loved every moment of it. This has obviously been a personal challenge, but I know the justice system will get this right.

McDonnell's team took the historic corruption case to the U.S. Supreme Court to urging the justices to overturn his conviction and spare him a federal prison sentence. Once a prospective running mate for Mitt Romney, McDonnell Virginia's first governor to be convicted of any crime. He could serve his two-year prison sentence in the event of a 4-4 tie, or if a majority of the justices uphold his conviction on 11 federal corruption counts.

The case has nationwide implications, with the justices considering what actions performed by politicians constitute corruption, when constituents seek assistance through money or personal gifts.

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year could harm the former governor's chances of prevailing because the late justice was considered receptive to the defense's argument that federal bribery statutes used to convict McDonnell are too broad, and unconstitutionally vague.

A Richmond jury convicted McDonnell in September 2014 of taking more than $177,000 in gifts and loans from Goochland businessman Jonnie Williams. Prosecutors asserted McDonnell took cash, luxury goods and getaways, in exchange for helping Williams' dietary supplement company.

Underscoring the stakes of the impending Supreme Court decision, 89 current and former members of Virginia's General Assembly filed amicus briefs supporting McDonnell. Former U.S. Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Michael B. Mukasey also filed briefs warning that an endorsement of the prosecution's interpretation of federal corruption laws could criminalize everyday politics.

"The line has to be clear because government officials are doing things all the time for their constituents," said former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson in an interview Monday. "If [McDonnell] promised to provide an actual government act … that's where the line should be drawn."

At issue is whether the governor performed any "official actions," in order to help Williams. Defense lawyers argue McDonnell only extended routine courtesies to the businessman, from organizing meetings, to holding functions with Williams at the Executive Mansion.

But federal prosecutors paint a more sinister picture, asserting the governor used the weight of his authority to influence subordinates, days or minutes after receiving substantial loans from Williams.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, faced $90,000 in credit card debt at the beginning of his time in office. The former governor and his sister also lost $40,000 annually on two heavily mortgaged beach properties.

To alleviate their financial distress, Williams testified he agreed to an exchange: the McDonnells would borrow money from the businessman when needed, and in return, Virginia's First Family would encourage Virginia medical schools to study Williams' product.

"I can be helpful to you with this project, with your company," Williams testified, describing a private meeting between himself and Mrs. McDonnell. "The governor says it's OK for me to help you, but I need you to help me. I need you to help me with this financial situation."

Prosecutors presented evidence of five specific episodes when the McDonnells helped Williams – instances the government said could have been permissible without the elements of personal gifts and money presented in exchange.

McDonnell held a product launch for Williams at the Executive Mansion, and allowed the businessman to invite his colleagues to a future lunch at the Mansion. The former governor also emailed his top adviser when studies at UVA and VCU on Williams' product did not move forward.

McDonnell arranged a meeting between a Virginia Health Department official and Williams, one personally attended by Mrs. McDonnell. The governor later showed a bottle of Williams' dietary supplement to his secretary of administration, saying its benefits might work for state employees.

Defense lawyers argue McDonnell should be acquitted or granted a new trial, because in their view, the five actions outlined in the case were far from official.

"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," said McDonnell's lawyer, Noel Francisco. "None of his five acts were 'official' because in none did he take — or pressure others to take — any specific action on any governmental matter."

But government lawyers contend influence constitutes official action. Prosecutors also rejected the notion that the Hobbs Act, a bribery law used to convict McDonnell, provides little guidance between permissible politics and federal felonies.

"Like so many federal statutes, it is incredibly broad and allows good, tough prosecutors to bring really expansive, very aggressive cases," said Chuck James Jr., a former federal prosecutor and Virginia chief deputy attorney general. "I do think it's fair to say [the government] took a very aggressive approach, and used the facts as they found them to cobble together what was clearly a very compelling prosecution."

A decision in the case of McDonnell v. United States is expected by the end of June. Mrs. McDonnell was a co-defendant in the corruption trial, however, her appeal to the high court remains on hold until her husband's fate is decided.

Copyright 2016 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved