- The Washington Times - Friday, January 15, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal from former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on his public corruption convictions, a case that could narrow the scope of what constitutes wrongdoing by public officials.

In a petition asking the Supreme Court to hear McDonnell’s appeal, his lawyers argued that McDonnell was convicted based on an overly broad definition of corruption that puts all elected officials at risk of prosecution.

The Supreme Court will take the case to examine the question of what constitutes an official act when it comes to federal bribery law. Justices have previously ruled that a broad interpretation of the law, which makes it a crime “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services,” is unconstitutionally vague.

“They could use this case as a vehicle to narrow that further,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

A Virginia jury in September 2014 found McDonnell guilty of accepting more than $170,000 in gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for helping promote Mr. Williams’s business interests.

McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison but has remained free while his appeal was considered by first an appeals court and now the Supreme Court.

As governor, McDonnell attended events with Mr. Williams and arranged meetings between him and other public officials, but Mr. Williams’ diet supplement company had no real success in obtaining state support of his products.

McDonnell’s attorneys have argued that the “official action” that law treats as corruption was no more than “routine political courtesies.”

The Supreme Court last weighed in on what counts as honest services fraud in 2010, when it significantly narrowed the scope of the law in response to an appeal by Jeffrey Skilling, former chief executive of Enron.

“From that point you come forward, I think, they are asking for further narrowing,” Mr. Tobias said.

Prosecution based on honest services fraud is “a favorite of U.S. Attorneys” who bring charges against politicians, said Mr. Tobias, adding that a narrowing of the definition of the crime could make it more challenging to prosecute lawmakers.

McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, also was found guilty for her role in the corruption scheme, and she was sentenced to a year and one day in prison. The former Virginia first lady’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals was put on hold while the Supreme Court weighed whether to hear her husband’s case.

The convictions marked a stunning downfall for McDonnell, who just a few years ago was chairman of the Republican Governors Association and was frequently mentioned as a possible running mate for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The Justice Department had urged the court to reject the appeal, saying the jury had ample evidence of bribery.

The case will likely be argued in April, with a decision expected by the end of June.

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