Supreme Court overturns McDonnell’s conviction

Two years after being indicted on corruption charges, former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell has won an unexpected legal victory.

The US Supreme Court on Monday vacated the judgement of the Court of Appeals which upheld the guilty verdict delivered against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell in 2014 .

In 2014, the federal government accused McDonnell of committing official acts to help Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams advance his business interests in exchange for $175,000 worth of loans, gifts and other benefits while in office. The Supreme Court case hinged on the definition of “an official act”. 

The government had alleged that McDonnell had arranged meetings for Williams – chief executive of a nutritional supplement company – with other Virginia officials to discuss his company’s product; had hosted events for Williams’ company at the Governor’s Mansion; and had contacted other government officials in order to help Williams meet his objective of getting Virginia public universities to perform research studies on one of his products.

The District Court, where the case was first tried, instructed the jury that an official act encompasses acts that a public official customarily performs. McDonnell had requested the District Court inform the jury that merely arranging a meeting, attending an event, hosting a reception or making a speech are not in themselves ‘official acts’. The District Court declined to do so. This then served as the basis for McDonnell’s appeal, which he also lost.

However, the Supreme Court agreed that setting up a meeting, calling another public official or hosting an event does not qualify as an official act. “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,” the Supreme Court justices wrote in the court’s opinion. “We accordingly vacate Governor McDonnell’s convictions.”

However, the Supreme Court also noted that if the lower court finds there is enough evidence for a jury to convict McDonnell of corruption charges, his case may be set for a new trial. If on the other hand, evidence is insufficient, the charges against him must be dismissed. “The judgement of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the justices concluded.

McDonnell thanked the Supreme Court justices in a statement “for the time and attention they have given to the law in my case”.

“It is my hope that this matter will soon be over and that my family and I can begin to rebuild our lives,” he added.

During his tenure, from January 2010 through January 2014, Virginia emerged as one of the leaders in advancing P3s in the US. In 2012 alone, the state closed $6 billion worth of P3 deals. In October 2013, Infrastructure Investor named McDonnell Public Infrastructure Official of the Year.