U.S. Supreme Court Takes On Public Corruption With McDonnell Case

by | January 18, 2016 AT 12:20 PM

By Greg Stohr

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider making it harder to prosecute public officials for corruption, agreeing to hear former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's appeal of his conviction for what government lawyers said was a bribery scheme.

McDonnell, 61, is fighting a two-year prison sentence. He was accused of accepting more than $175,000 in cash and gifts from Jonnie Williams while serving as governor, in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement sold by the businessman's company.

McDonnell contends he didn't do anything to help Williams and merely extended "routine political courtesies" by arranging meetings and attending an event. McDonnell says the appeals court that upheld his conviction used logic that would turn virtually every elected official into a felon.

"This is the first time in our history that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scales of any government decision," McDonnell's lawyers argued.

The Obama administration says McDonnell is trying to impose an unwarranted new standard. The administration says that under federal law, prosecutors needed to show only that McDonnell agreed to use the power of his office to influence state government actions.

A federal appeals court upheld the conviction "based on the unexceptionable proposition that a public official violates federal corruption statutes where, as here, he accepts personal benefits in exchange for his agreement to influence government matters," U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued. The administration urged the court to reject the appeal without a hearing.

Federal law, including the bribery statute, makes it a felony to agree to take "official action" in exchange for money, campaign contributions or other gifts.

McDonnell, once seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate, was convicted alongside his wife, Maureen, in 2014. Prosecutors said Williams showered the cash-strapped couple with gifts that included private plane flights, golf trips and a $20,000 shopping spree for Maureen, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader.

Prosecutors said that, in exchange, the governor promoted Williams's Anatabloc. McDonnell was accused of encouraging a subordinate to include the product, promoted as an anti-inflammatory joint supplement, in the state's health plan, prodding state medical schools to conduct clinical tests needed for its federal approval as a drug, and hosting an event at the governor's mansion to mark Anatabloc's introduction for public sale.

The former governor had bipartisan backing in his bid for a Supreme Court hearing. Among those urging high court review were two former Democratic White House counsels, Jack Quinn and Gregory Craig.

The Supreme Court signaled interest in McDonnell's appeal in August when the justices blocked his prison sentence while they considered whether to take up the case.

The case is McDonnell v. United States, 15-474.

The Supreme Court also agreed to take up a new religious rights clash, accepting an appeal from a Missouri church that says it was unconstitutionally denied state funding for a new playground surface.

The court will decide whether Missouri officials violated the Constitution by using religion as a reason for rejecting the Trinity Lutheran Church's application in a program that used scrap tires to resurface playgrounds.

The church, which operates a preschool in the central Missouri town of Columbia, was one of 44 applicants for funding under the program in 2012. State officials ranked Trinity fifth on that list, but ultimately rejected the application and awarded grants to 14 other applicants.

In a letter to the church, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources pointed to a provision in the state constitution that bars public funding of churches. Trinity says the rebuff violated its U.S. constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and equal protection.

A divided federal appeals court disagreed, pointing to a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that said states that offer college scholarships can deny them to students majoring in theology.

The case is Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley, 15-577.

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