US top court throws out Virginia ex-governor McDonnell's corruption conviction

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Supreme Court Throws Out Conviction in Corruption Case of Former Virginia Governor

WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out Republican former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell's corruption convictions in a ruling that could hem in federal prosecutors as they go after bribery charges against other politicians.

The court ruled 8-0 in overturning McDonnell's conviction for accepting $177,000 in luxury gifts and sweetheart loans for him and his wife from a wealthy Richmond businessman seeking to promote a dietary supplement. The court found that McDonnell's conduct did not constitute a criminal act under federal bribery law.

RELATED: Images of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen

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Former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell was sentenced to one year and one day in prison during a sentencing hearing Friday afternoon.
RICHMOND, VA - AUGUST 18: Maureen McDonnell walks to her corruption trial at U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, August 18, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. McDonnell and her husband Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell are on trial for accepting gifts, vacations and loans from a Virginia businessman in exchange for helping his company. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - JANUARY 24: Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (2ndR) and his wife, Maureen (2nd-L) leave the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, on January 24, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. McDonnell and his wife Maureen pleaded not guilty to a 14 count criminal indictment from federal grand jury charging that the couple violated federal corruption laws by using their positions to benefit a wealthy businessman who gave them gifts and loans. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - JANUARY 24: Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen leave the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, on January 24, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. McDonnell and his wife Maureen pleaded not guilty to a 14 count criminal indictment from federal grand jury charging that the couple violated federal corruption laws by using their positions to benefit a wealthy businessman who gave them gifts and loans. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - AUGUST 29: Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell (C) leaves her trial at U.S. District Court house August 29, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. McDonnell and her husband, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, are on trial for accepting gifts, vacations and loans from a Virginia businessman in exchange for helping his company, Star Scientific (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 3: Maureen McDonell arrives separately from her husband as jury deliberations in the federal corruption trial of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen, on September, 03, 2014 in Richmond, VA. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - AUGUST 29: Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell leaves his trial at U.S. District Court, August 29, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. McDonnell and his wife Maureen are on trial for accepting gifts, vacations and loans from a Virginia businessman in exchange for helping his company, Star Scientific. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA JULY 31: Witness Jonnie R. Williams Sr. departs the Spottswood W. Robinson III and Robert R. Merhige, Jr., Federal Courthouse following a day of testimony in a federal corruption charge against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday, July 31, 2014. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 3: Former Governor Bob McDonnell departs the courthouse after a second day of jury deliberations in the federal corruption trial of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen, on September, 03, 2014 in Richmond, VA. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - AUGUST 09: U.S. Army Sgt. Wesley Watkins of Union Bridge, Maryland, reads from Jill Biden's 'Don't Forget, God Bless Our Troops' as Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (C) and his wife Maureen McDonnell visit the KinderCare Learning Center August 9, 2012 in Alexandria, Virginia. A 21-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Gov. McDonnell's visit to the center is part of KinderCare's Honoring the Troops program taking place at the end of August in Virginia and Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - AUGUST 09: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (C) and his wife Maureen McDonnell (3rd R) say hello to a young student while visiting the KinderCare Learning Center August 9, 2012 in Alexandria, Virginia. A 21-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Gov. McDonnell's visit to the center is part of KinderCare's Honoring the Troops program taking place at the end of August in Virginia and Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In this courtroom sketch at the federal corruption trial of former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell, center, and his wife, former first lady Maureen McDonnell, second from right, Judge James R. Spencer, left, presides during jury selection Monday, July 28, 2014, in Richmond, Va. Bob and Maureen McDonnell are charged in a 14-count indictment with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from the CEO of a dietary supplements company in exchange for helping promote his products. The defense team is gathered at a courtroom table and includes Victoria Taraktchian, John L. Brownlee, Robert McDonnell, Henry W. "Hank" Asbill, Marjorie Fargo, Maureen McDonnell, and William "Bill" Burck at left. Foreground figure, third from right, is Stephen Hauss. (AP Photo/Dana Verkouteren)
RICHMOND, VA - AUGUST 28: Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (C) leaves his trial at U.S. District Court with his son Bobby (R) August 28, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. McDonnell and his wife Maureen are on trial for accepting gifts, vacations and loans from a Virginia businessman in exchange for helping his company, Star Scientific. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - AUGUST 18: Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell walks to his corruption trial at U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, August 18, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. McDonnell and his wife Maureen are on trial for accepting gifts, vacations and loans from a Virginia businessman in exchange for helping his company. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - AUGUST 18: Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell walks to his corruption trial at U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, August 18, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. McDonnell and his wife Maureen are on trial for accepting gifts, vacations and loans from a Virginia businessman in exchange for helping his company. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - AUGUST 18: Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell walks to his corruption trial at U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, August 18, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. McDonnell and his wife Maureen are on trial for accepting gifts, vacations and loans from a Virginia businessman in exchange for helping his company. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, center, arrives at federal court with his attorneys, John Brownlee, left, and Henry Asbill, right, in Richmond, Va., Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. McDonnell presents his defense in his corruption trial today. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell , right, is swarmed by the media as he arrives at federal court in Richmond, Va., Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. McDonnell presents his defense today. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell, center, is flanked by daughters Rachel McDonnell, left, and Cailin Young, right, as they arrive at the federal courthouse in Richmond, Va,, Monday, July 28, 2014, on the first day of jury selection in the corruption trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife in Richmond, Va. Bob and Maureen McDonnell are charged in a 14-count indictment with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from the CEO of a dietary supplements company in exchange for helping promote his products. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, left, is escorted out of Federal court by a security officer after a motions hearing in Richmond, Va., Monday, May 19, 2014. The Republican former governor and his wife are charged in a 14-count indictment with accepting more than $165,000 from Jonnie Williams, the former CEO of dietary supplements maker Star Scientific Inc., in exchange for helping promote his products. They have pleaded not guilty. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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McDonnell was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to two years in prison but had remained free pending the outcome of his appeal.

The issue before the court was whether the gifts and money were part of an unlawful arrangement in which a sitting governor, in return for accepting them, employed the power of his office to benefit businessman Jonnie Williams.

The court ruled that the prosecution's broad interpretation of the bribery law made it unclear whether McDonnell was convicted of conduct that was actually illegal.

The court sent the case back to lower courts to determine if there is sufficient evidence for a jury to convict McDonnell. He could still face a new trial.

McDonnell's lawyer, Noel Francisco, said federal prosecutors should drop the charges.

"This court's ruling sends a very strong message that the entire theory this prosecution rested upon was flawed," Francisco said in a telephone interview. "Now that that theory is completely gone, we think the case is gone."

Under the court's new interpretation of what "official acts" can be constituted as bribery, "setting up a meeting, calling another public official or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an official act," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

'TAWDRY TALES'

Roberts stressed that the ruling was prompted by overzealous federal prosecutors rather than any sympathy for McDonnell.

"There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ballgowns. It is instead with the broad legal implications of the government's boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute."

McDonnell, 62, was found guilty of 11 corruption counts including conspiracy, bribery and extortion for taking the gifts and loans in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement called Anatabloc made by Williams' company Star Scientific. A federal appeals court later upheld the conviction.

In their successful appeal, McDonnell's lawyers had argued that federal prosecutors had taken too broad a view of federal bribery law by criminalizing the kind of political favors that politicians do routinely.

RELATED: Supreme Court Justices

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Supreme Court Justices
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Supreme Court Justices

Anthony Kennedy

Born: 1936

Joined Supreme Court: 1988

Appointed by: Ronald Reagan

Votes: Conservative/Center

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clarence Thomas

Born: 1948

Joined Supreme Court: 1991

Appointed by: George H.W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee April 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born: 1933

Joined Supreme Court: 1993

Appointed by: Bill Clinton 

Votes: Liberal

In this July 31, 2014 file photo, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen in her chambers in at the Supreme Court in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Stephen Breyer

Born: 1938

Joined Supreme Court: 1994

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal/Center

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at the Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 6, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Samuel Alito

Born: 1950

Joined Supreme Court: 2006

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

John Roberts, Chief Justice

Born: 1955

Joined Supreme Court: 2005

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is followed by Elena Kagan on her way to take the Judicial Oath to become the 112th US Supreme Court justice, in Washington on August 7, 2010. (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Sonia Sotomayor

Born: 1954

Joined Supreme Court: 2009

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor discusses her book 'My Beloved World' presented in association with Books and Books at Bank United Center on February 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Elena Kagan

Born: 1960

Joined Supreme Court: 2010

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)
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The decision could limit the type of cases U.S. prosecutors could bring against politicians in the future by requiring that any action taken in return for a bribe be more than ordinary moves such as arranging a meeting between a benefactor and a government official.

In New York, two former leaders of the state's legislature convicted last year in separate corruption trials, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, had already indicated that they would on appeal rely on any decision in favor of McDonnell.

Silver, the former Democratic speaker of the New York State Assembly, was sentenced in March to 12 years in prison. Skelos, the former Republican majority leader of the New York state Senate, was sentenced later that month to five years in prison.

A Justice Department spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

McDonnell's lawyers had contended his conduct did not constitute "official action" in exchange for a thing of value, as required for conviction under federal bribery law. Prosecutors argued that McDonnell took official acts in return for the gifts and money, such as arranging meetings, which they portrayed as a classic tale of political corruption.

The case was a rare instance of the nation's highest court reviewing a high-level public official's criminal conviction.

McDonnell is a former Republican Party rising star who served as governor from 2010 to 2014 and once was considered as a possible U.S. vice presidential candidate. His wife, Maureen, was convicted in a separate trial and given a one-year sentence but remained free while pursuing a separate appeal.

The Supreme Court did not act on Maureen McDonnell's conviction, but its ruling applies no less to her and "requires that her conviction immediately be tossed out as well," her lawyer, William Burck, said in a statement. "Mrs. McDonnell, like her husband, was wrongfully convicted."

Prosecutors described for jurors the luxurious lifestyle the McDonnells lived, despite being heavily in debt, thanks to Williams including vacations, designer clothing and shoes, a $6,500 Rolex watch, use of a Ferrari sports car, $15,000 for their daughter's wedding, golf outings and more. The trial also exposed fissures in their marriage.

Williams wanted McDonnell to press researchers at Virginia state universities to conduct studies that could help win U.S. regulatory approval for Anatabloc. McDonnell orchestrated meetings for Williams with state officials and used the governor's mansion in Richmond for a product launch for new supplement.

Prosecutors granted Williams immunity in exchange for his cooperation in their pursuit of the McDonnells. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and David Ingram; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Will Dunham)

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