RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A federal appeals panel upheld former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s public corruption convictions Friday, rejecting his claim that he only extended routine political courtesies to a wealthy businessman who showered him and his family with expensive gifts and five-figure loans.
McDonnell, once widely considered a possible running mate to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said he was disappointed and continued to insist that he acted in good faith.
“During my nearly 40 years of public service, I have never violated my oath of office nor disregarded the law,” McDonnell, who also served as a state legislator and attorney general, said in a written statement. “I remain highly confident in the justice system and the grace of our God that full vindication will come in time.”
McDonnell’s lawyers said they are examining their legal options, which include asking the full appeals court to reconsider the three-judge panel’s unanimous decision or appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The fight for justice for our client is far from over,” the attorneys said in a written statement.
U.S. Attorney Dana Boente said he was pleased with the decision but did not elaborate.
A jury in September found McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of doing favors for former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans.
U.S. District Judge James Spencer sentenced Bob McDonnell, who was convicted of 11 counts, to two years in prison. He sentenced Maureen McDonnell to one year and one day on eight counts. Both are free on bond while they pursue appeals.
Barry J. Pollack, a white-collar defense lawyer in Washington, D.C., who is not involved in the case, said McDonnell probably could remain free by asking the appeals court for rehearing. It would be harder to stay out once the case goes to the Supreme Court, he said.
Spencer recommended in January that McDonnell be assigned a prison near his home, but the Bureau of Prisons is not obligated to comply. The closest low-security federal prison is in Petersburg, less than 30 miles from Richmond.
The appeals court has not yet scheduled oral arguments in the former first lady’s case. Pollack said Friday’s ruling does not bode well for Maureen McDonnell, who raised many of the same issues. Her attorneys declined to comment.
Williams was seeking state university-backed research of his company’s signature product, the tobacco-derived anti-inflammatory Anatabloc, while McDonnell was governor. The McDonnells attended promotional events and hosted an event at the Executive Mansion to officially launch the product, and the former governor arranged meetings for Williams with administration officials.
Meanwhile, the businessman bought a $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor and about $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories for the first lady. He also gave $15,000 for a daughter’s wedding, paid for golf outings and vacations and loaned the couple $120,000, mostly to cover expenses for the family’s two money-losing Virginia Beach vacation rental properties.
The appeals court disagreed with McDonnell’s contention that the favors he did for Williams were too insignificant to amount to an “official act” under federal bribery law.
“With each of these acts, Appellant exploited the power of his office in furtherance of an ongoing effort to influence the work of state university researchers,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote in the 89-page opinion.
The court noted that the government’s evidence “demonstrated a close relationship” between the favors and gifts. It cited several instances in which a gift or loan from Williams was promptly followed by some official action on his behalf - evidence of an illegal “quid pro quo,” the Latin term that means providing one thing for another.
“The temporal relationship between the ‘quids’ and the ‘quos’ - the gifts, payments, loans, and favors and the official acts - constitute compelling evidence of corrupt intent,” Thacker wrote in the opinion, which was joined by Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Robert King.
McDonnell claimed that he was convicted based on an overly broad definition of what constitutes an “official act” by an elected official. McDonnell said in court papers that the government’s theory of the case, as well as Spencer’s jury instruction on the issue, could subject virtually every officeholder - from the White House to city hall - to prosecution just for helping constituents gain access to their government.
But the appeals court agreed with prosecutors who said the jury instruction was essentially the same one given in the trial of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, whose bribery convictions were upheld by the 4th Circuit.
Jeff Bellin, a professor at the College of William and Mary Law School and a former federal prosecutor, said the appeals court’s decision didn’t do much to clarify the law.
“It’s still unresolved, we still have a very vague statue,” Bellin said. “If I’m a politician, I’d be very frustrated not knowing what that line is.”
Chuck James, a Richmond attorney and former federal prosecutor, said the decision will likely “embolden” prosecutors eyeing other politicians around the country.
“There are a lot of practices that were accepted - viewed as perfectly acceptable and commonplace - in local state and federal offices that are now off limits thanks to this prosecution,” James said.
Associated Press writer Alan Suderman contributed to this report.
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