The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments Wednesday in a case that tests the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
At issue is a great deal more than one case.
The federal government contends that if the Supreme Court voids the conviction, it could cripple enforcement of laws against public corruption. The defense counters that if the conviction is upheld, it would turn ordinary political acts into crimes.
McDonnell was the golden boy of the Virginia Republican Party when he was elected governor in 2009, with a star so bright that he was often mentioned for the GOP presidential ticket.
But from the moment he took office, McDonnell and his wife Maureen were broke, owing as much as $90,000 in credit card debt. In addition, McDonnell and his sister were in hock to friends and family for $160,000 they had to borrow in order to meet expenses on two heavily-mortgaged rental properties they had bought.
Enter Jonnie Williams, a Virginia businessman whose company, Star Scientific, had developed a dietary supplement called Anatabloc, which would be worth much more if it were approved by the FDA as a pharmaceutical. Winning FDA approval, however, required extensive scientific testing, and Williams's company couldn't afford to pay for it. He wanted the research conducted instead by two highly regarded state universities, the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Soon, the governor's wife would ask Williams for a $50,000 loan to help defray the costs of their daughter's wedding. Williams called the governor to confirm that he knew about the loan, and McDonnell thanked the businessman for his financial assistance. Three days later, McDonnell instructed an aide to forward material about Williams's company to Virginia's Secretary of Health.
In all, Williams would ultimately provide the McDonnells with $120,000 in personal loans, luxury gifts worth tens of thousands more, and a $100,000 donation to the governor's political action committee.
During the same period, McDonnell asked the state secretary of health to send his deputy to a meeting with Williams and Maureen McDonnell. McDonnell's political action committee also paid for a luncheon at the governor's mansion to launch Anatabloc, and the governor and his wife arranged for social contacts at the mansion and elsewhere to introduce Williams to people who might help his company.
But, importantly, the research sought by Star Scientific never actually took place.
None of the gifts to the McDonnells were illegal under state law, but the federal government eventually charged McDonnell and his wife with 11 counts of conspiracy to commit fraud under federal law. McDonnell himself was accused of depriving the state's citizens of his honest services by accepting bribes in exchange for performing "official acts" to benefit Williams's company.
McDonnell said from the get-go that, while his judgment had been in error, he did nothing illegal.
"Federal officials in Washington, in their zeal to find a basis for charging Maureen and me, have decided to stretch the law to its breaking point," he said at the time of his indictment.
His subsequent conviction, however, was upheld by the Federal Court Of Appeals based in Richmond, and he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears starkly-opposing arguments in the case on Wednesday.
On one side is the government, contending, essentially, that this is a no-brainer. The McDonnells solicited a total of $120,000 in undisclosed loans; made no payments on the loans until they learned they were under investigation; and, while receiving these loans, plus luxury gifts worth tens of thousands more, the governor (sometimes within minutes of soliciting or receiving these benefits) took actions aimed at helping Star Scientific.
On the other side are McDonnell's lawyers, who reject this portrait entirely. They contend that the things the governor did for Johnnie Williams and his company were nothing more than "the most routine political activities" — namely, "arranging meetings, asking questions, and attending events." They will tell the Supreme Court that Gov.McDonnell "never exercised any governmental power" on Williams's behalf, never "promised to do so, or pressured others to do so."
The defense notes that elected officials "routinely arrange meetings for campaign donors, take their calls, politely listen to their ideas, and refer them to aides."
"In criminalizing those everyday acts," the defense argues, "the government has put every federal, state, and local official nationwide in its prosecutorial crosshairs" with a broad, amorphous, and unconstitutional definition of public corruption.
Now the Supreme Court will decide.