The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously overturned the corruption conviction of a former state governor, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, in a ruling that could make it harder to prosecute public officials for alleged wrongdoing.
McDonnell, once the Republican chief executive of the mid-Atlantic state, was convicted in 2014 of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts, vacations and loans from a business executive in exchange for promoting his dietary supplement.
But McDonnell contended he had not violated any bribery laws because he took no "official" actions on behalf of the businessman, only offering him access to state officials to promote his product, much like other political figures routinely do.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said, "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 ball gowns. It is, instead, with the broader legal implications of the government's boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute."
Roberts said that if a lower court "determines that there is sufficient evidence for a jury to convict Governor McDonnell of committing or agreeing to commit an ‘official act,’ his case may be set for a new trial. If the court instead determines that the evidence is insufficient, the charges against him must be dismissed. We express no view on that question."
The court said that "setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an 'official act.'"
Numerous U.S. political figures, both Republicans and Democrats, had urged the court to reach the decision it did, on grounds that McDonnell had not offered the business executive any official state action to benefit him.
Analysts who followed the McDonnell case and other corruption cases against U.S. public officials said the ruling could make it harder in the future to prosecute such cases without a specific agreement from a public figure that he would do something for a citizen in exchange for a bribe.
McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison in the case, but was free pending the outcome of his appeal. His wife, Maureen, was also convicted in the case and sentenced to a year and one day in prison. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, her lawyers immediately called for dismissal of the case against her.