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.
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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.
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.
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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)