Bob and Maureen McDonnell: Running Out of Legal Options

Update 8/31/15:  The Supreme Court today granted McDonnell’s request to remain free on bond while the Court considers his petition for certiorari.  I think this is surprising, and has to be considered a very good sign for McDonell.  It suggests there is some level of interest at the high court in reviewing the case, even though not a single judge so far in the lower courts has agreed with McDonnell’s arguments.  Stay tuned.

The former Governor and First Lady of Virginia are rapidly running out of both time and options to avoid going to prison.

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Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted last September on multiple counts of corruption.  The jury found that they conspired together over a two-year period to use the powers of the Governor’s office to help a businessman, Jonnie Williams, who was trying to promote his dietary supplement Anatabloc within the state government.  In exchange, Williams gave the McDonnells $120,000 in interest-free, no-paperwork “loans,” along with gifts including a Rolex watch, designer dresses, golf outings and luxury vacations, and payment of the catering bill for their daughter’s wedding.  Following their convictions, Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison and Maureen was sentenced to one year and one day.

Although the McDonnells were tried together, their appeals have proceeded on separate tracks.  Maureen’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has not even been argued yet, and is currently scheduled for a hearing on October 29.  Bob’s appeal was argued last May, and a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit unanimously affirmed his conviction on July 10.

The former Governor asked the Fourth Circuit for a rehearing by the same judges or for an en banc rehearing by the entire court.  The court denied both requests on August 11, with not a single judge voting to re-hear McDonnell’s case.

McDonnell has been free on bond during his appeal, but the Fourth Circuit has now rejected his request to remain in that status while he petitions the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case.  The Fourth Circuit ruled that the mandate  — the order from the trial judge enforcing the verdict and sentence – will issue this Thursday, August 27.  Once the mandate issues, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons will designate a facility where McDonnell will serve his sentence and he will be given a date to report to prison.  This could happen in a matter of only a few weeks.

McDonnell’s lawyers have filed a last-ditch appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that he remain free while he files a petition for certiorari asking the Court to review the Fourth Circuit’s decision.  To succeed, they have to persuade the Supreme Court that there is a reasonable likelihood not only that four Justices will vote to take the case but also that McDonnell will ultimately prevail.  That’s a real uphill battle.

McDonnell’s principal argument on appeal is that his conviction represents a dangerous and unprecedented expansion of federal corruption law because he did not perform any “official acts” in exchange for the gifts that he unquestionably received from Williams.  But McDonnell’s lawyers have been making that same argument since before he was indicted, and so far not a single judge (not to mention a single juror) has agreed.

When all prior judges to consider an argument have unanimously rejected it, it’s pretty hard to see five Justices of the Supreme Court buying in.  When you couple that with the fact that the Supreme Court agrees to review fewer than 1% of the petitions it receives, it looks pretty unlikely that the Court will disturb the Fourth Circuit’s decision that McDonnell should begin serving his sentence.

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Bob McDonnell’s Arguments on Appeal

Bob McDonnell made a number of arguments in his appeal to the Fourth Circuit, including that the judge did not adequately question potential jurors, that he and Maureen should have been tried separately, and that the judge made a number of errors when ruling on evidence during the trial.  (You can find my detailed discussion of these appellate issues here.)  As I expected, none of these gained much traction in the Court of Appeals.  The only substantial issue – which the Fourth Circuit referred to as “the core of this appeal” — was McDonnell’s claim that he could not be convicted of corruption because he never performed any “official acts” within the meaning of federal corruption laws.

McDonnell had an extraordinary amount of support, including briefs filed by politicians from across the county and a number of former Virginia Attorneys General arguing that his conviction was unwarranted and could spell the end of politics as we know it.  But the Court of Appeals had no trouble finding that McDonnell had acted corruptly and that these claims were overblown.

The Court of Appeals noted that both sides in the case, as well as the district court judge, had proceeded on the theory that the relevant definition of “official acts” is the one found in the federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201 – a statute that was not part of McDonnell’s case. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is a dubious proposition — but since all sides agreed the Fourth Circuit chose to accept it, at least for the purposes of McDonnell’s appeal.

Even using this defense-friendly definition, the court had no trouble finding that McDonnell had agreed to engage in a number of official acts in exchange for the gifts from Williams. These included acting on questions concerning whether Virginia universities would fund research studies of Anatabloc, whether a state-created tobacco commission would allocate grant money to study it, and whether Anatabloc would become a covered drug under the health plan for Virginia employees.

These were all matters over which McDonnell, as the state’s chief executive, had substantial influence. The court concluded that the evidence at trial demonstrated he had taken steps to try to influence those matters for Williams’ benefit. As the court noted, it was not necessary for the government to prove that McDonnell actually succeeded, or that Williams actually received a state grant or a research study. Corruption is established by the deal, where the public official agrees to exercise influence in exchange for things of value. It doesn’t matter if the official ultimately succeeds or even if he actually has the power to do what he promised, so long as he makes a corrupt bargain to sell the power and influence of his office.

The court concluded that the evidence showed McDonnell did not merely agree but actually took some concrete steps to try to fulfill his end of the deal. Those steps included directing staff to meet with Williams and to look into conducting the Anatabloc research studies, and holding a “product launch” event for Anatabloc at the Governor’s mansion.

In the end, the Court of Appeals unanimously concluded that, despite the protestations of McDonnell and his allies, this case was really not all that remarkable. In exchange for a string of gifts, McDonnell used the power and prestige of his office to try to further Williams’ business interests. The only thing unusual about the case was that, in the end, Williams did not in fact get much in exchange for his efforts – but as the government has pointed out, that McDonnell was not successful in fulfilling his end of the bargain does not change the fact that the bargain itself was corrupt. As a legal matter, McDonnell does not benefit simply because his efforts to help Williams were ultimately unsuccessful.

Maureen McDonnell’s Arguments on Appeal

Maureen McDonnell’s lawyers are in an unenviable position. The Court of Appeals has already rejected all of Bob’s arguments, and her arguments are virtually the same.  Her lawyers have acknowledged, as they must, that there is “substantial overlap” between the issues in her appeal and the issues already decided in the government’s favor in her husband’s case.

So in preparing for the October 29 argument, Maureen’s lawyers are left trying to find some way to convince the Court that her case and her legal issues are actually different. This is basically like trying to find a good-looking deck chair on the Titanic.

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Maureen’s primary argument is that she is not a public official, and so she should be held to a more lenient standard. Her lawyers claim that as a “high-school educated spouse of a politician,” she could not possibly have known it was improper for her and the Governor to try to help Williams in exchange for all of his largesse.

I think this argument is extremely unlikely to fly. Maureen was charged with conspiring with her husband to sell his influence as a public official, so there was no requirement that she be a public official herself. It is common for those who are not public officials to be charged with corruption, either through a conspiracy charge as in this case or because they are the ones paying the bribes.

As for her state of mind, prosecutors did not need to show that Maureen was some kind of legal expert thoroughly familiar with the ins and outs of federal bribery law and the nuances of the “official act” definition. They only needed to show that she agreed to act corruptly, meaning that she agreed with Bob to exercise the powers of his office in exchange for Williams’ gifts. There was ample evidence of this during the trial.

The other problem with this defense is that there was evidence at trial demonstrating that Maureen knew the relationship with Williams was improper. The most significant was testimony concerning how she sold her stock in Williams’ company just before she had to file a government financial disclosure report, only to buy it right back after the report was filed. She also attempted to transfer ownership of that stock to her children, so it would not be reported and would remain concealed from the public.

There also was evidence that Maureen was told by the Governor’s staff that she could not allow Williams to buy her inaugural gown, as he had offered to do. (He later made up for it, though, by taking her on a shopping spree in New York and buying her several designer dresses.) In short, the suggestion that Maureen was blissfully unaware that there might be anything at all improper about the relationship with Williams simply does not withstand scrutiny.

Finally, questions about a defendant’s state of mind and intent are classic jury questions. These factual issues were fully argued at trial and the jury unanimously found against her. There is no real legal basis here for an appellate court to disturb that finding.

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I think it’s extremely unlikely that Maureen will succeed on appeal where Bob did not, and also unlikely that the Supreme Court will allow Bob to remain on bond or agree to review the Fourth Circuit’s decision. That means Virginia’s former Governor will probably be behind bars before the end of the year, with his wife following shortly thereafter.

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