Five former Virginia attorneys general — three Democrats and two Republicans — said in a proposed court filing that corruption counts against former Gov. Bob McDonnell should be dismissed and that Justice Department attorneys overreached in bringing criminal charges for his indiscretions.
“Frankly, we are taken aback by the efforts of federal prosecutors to stretch the law to cover them,” the former attorneys general said in the document filed late Wednesday.
The memo, submitted for the judge’s consideration as a friend of the court brief, says the corruption charges against Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, rely on an “expansive interpretation” of federal law and are alien to any advice they would offer a governor of Virginia. They say such an interpretation creates the possibility of federal prosecution for “normal participation in the democratic process.”
Democrats Andrew P. Miller, Mary Sue Terry and Stephen D. Rosenthal and Republicans J. Marshall Coleman and Mark L. Earley signed the memo. The group, whose service dates back to 1970, represent themselves as all living former state attorneys general who do not or have not represented a party in the case or who have not served as governor.
Mr. McDonnell’s attorneys — and critics in general — have accused the federal government of overreaching in a politically motivated case against a onetime rising star in the GOP.
Andrew T. Wise, a lawyer who led the trial defense for a case in connection with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, said the bipartisan front is “a powerful thing, I think, for the court to hear.”
“The bipartisan nature of it [is] certainly something. My guess is, [that] would catch the court’s notice,” he said.
The memo takes issue with what federal prosecutors in their 14-count indictment characterize as “official acts” to benefit a wealthy businessman who showered the first family with gifts and loans.
The former governor and his wife, Maureen, who faces similar criminal counts, have pleaded not guilty to charges that stem from accepting, among other things, $15,000 for catering at their daughter’s wedding, an engraved $6,500 Rolex watch and a New York City shopping spree. Mr. McDonnell has said the gifts were motivated by friendship and that the family has repaid them. A trial is scheduled for July 28.
The memo filed by the attorneys general seeks dismissal of the 11 corruption-related counts. The final three counts include charges that Mr. McDonnell and his wife made false statements to a bank and credit union and that Mrs. McDonnell obstructed the proceedings of a grand jury.
The attorneys general wrote that it is “perfectly clear” that federal and state law would be violated if, in exchange for something of value, a governor appointed someone to a state board or commission, offered a government job, awarded a state contract or spent public money.
“But the indictment does not allege that Governor McDonnell did any of these things, or anything similar,” the motion states.
The attorneys general recount the acts charged in the indictment, including meetings Mr. McDonnell facilitated, events he hosted and introductions he arranged for Jonnie R. Williams Sr., an executive with a dietary supplement company who was promoting a smoking-cessation product.
“As Attorneys General, none of us would have concluded that any of these things constitute ‘official acts’ within the meaning of the federal statutes at issue here,” the motion states.
The law enforcement officials said prosecutors blurred the lines between “official acts,” which they say Mr. McDonnell is required to have taken before a violation of federal law could have occurred, and the granting or facilitating of access to government officials, which they say is not illegal.
Randall Eliason, a professor at George Washington University Law School who spent 12 years as an assistant U.S. attorney, said the brief is unusual because it is from the group of former attorneys general but is unlikely to have a material impact on the case.
“This is federal law. I really don’t think it’s going to have much impact,” he said. “It doesn’t really add anything sort of new.”
The former attorneys general also speculate that under prosecutors’ interpretation of the law, a governor, whose residence is the Executive Mansion, would be at risk of criminal charges for inviting a campaign contributor into the home.
“As former Attorneys General of Virginia, we obviously recognize that the gifts alleged by the indictment may raise issues of the appearance of impropriety, but that is a different issue from whether any law has been broken,” they wrote.
At the very least, Mr. Wise said, he would expect a judge to be interested in their opinion.
“It’s newsworthy when a bipartisan group of attorneys general write and say the statutes are not as they would have applied [them],” he said.