Supreme Court Narrows Federal Bribery Law in a Win for Bob McDonnell

Update 9/8/16: The Justice Department announced today that it will not re-try the McDonnells and will be dismissing all charges.

 

Suppose I’m a state governor who knows there are many people who would like to meet with members of my cabinet or other state officials to press for some particular action. I set up a system where I say, “If you want me to arrange for you to meet with a public official to make your pitch, you pay me $10,000. It won’t be disclosed to anyone, I’ll just put it in my pocket. I’m not agreeing to influence what decision is made, I’ll just get you in the room. But if you don’t pay, no meeting.”

Most people would probably consider such a “pay for access” system to be corrupt. Access can be critically important. If two companies are competing for a government contract, the one that is able to get a personal meeting with the deciding official is likely to have a significant advantage – particularly if that meeting came at the request of the official’s boss, the highest elected official in the state.

But after today’s decision in McDonnell v. United States, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, although such behavior may be “distasteful” or “tawdry,” it does not violate federal bribery law. This unfortunate decision dramatically limits the scope of federal anti-corruption statutes by adopting an artificially narrow interpretation of “official action.” It’s a discouraging day for anyone concerned about the influence of money in politics.

In a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court today vacated the convictions of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted on multiple counts of corruption back in September 2014. The case centered on their relationship with a businessman named Jonnie Williams. Williams owned a company that made a dietary supplement called Anatabloc, and he was interested in having Virginia universities conduct research studies of Anatabloc to help him obtain FDA approval.

The evidence at trial established that Williams gave the McDonnells more than $170,000 in gifts. These included paying for the caterer for their daughter’s wedding, a Rolex watch, a shopping spree in New York for Maureen McDonnell where she purchased more than $10,000 in designer gowns, and $120,000 in no interest, no paperwork “loans.”

In exchange, the government charged, McDonnell agreed he would seek to promote Anatabloc within the Virginia government and seek to have Virginia universities perform the critical research studies. But the evidence did not establish that McDonnell’s efforts were particularly substantial or successful. He asked some government officials to meet with Williams to discuss possible studies of Anatabloc, hosted a product launch event at the Governor’s mansion, and made a few other inquiries on Williams’ behalf, but Williams never got the desired research studies or any other government benefit.

The McDonnells were convicted of two corruption offenses, Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right and honest services mail and wire fraud. When it comes to public corruption, both of these statutes effectively operate as bribery by another name. Bribery requires a corrupt quid pro quo: in exchange for receiving something of value, the public official agrees to use the power of his or her office to benefit the bribe payer.

The issue therefore boiled down to whether McDonnell’s conduct amounted to bribery under these corruption statutes. The parties throughout the case had agreed that honest services fraud and Hobbs Act bribery should be defined by using the language of the principal federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201 (which applies only to federal public officials and was not used in the McDonnell case). As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is a questionable proposition for a number of reasons. But the Supreme Court agreed to resolve the case on that basis, and held that the outcome in McDonnell’s case should be controlled by the language of Section 201 – a crime with which he was never charged.

Section 201 defines bribery, in part, as a public official corruptly accepting a thing of value in exchange for agreeing to be influenced in the performance of an “official act.” “Official act” is defined as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official . . . .” There was no question that McDonnell accepted things of value from Williams; the quid side of the equation was not at issue. The case boiled down to whether the steps taken by McDonnell fit this legal definition of “official act” — in other words, whether they were a legally sufficient quo.

Image of former Gov McDonnell. The Bob McDonnell bribery cases narrowed the scope of federal corruption law

McDonnell’s Conduct and “Official Acts”

Throughout the case, the defense had maintained that what McDonnell did for Williams did not amount to official acts under federal bribery law. McDonnell’s actions, they argued, were mere routine political courtesies that might be extended to any supporter or constituent. McDonnell may have introduced Williams to government decision-makers, but he never tried to put his “thumb on the scale” of any decision that those officials made. The critical distinction, they argued, was between providing mere access and actually engaging in the exercise of official power.

In an opinion that spends a good deal of time parsing the specific language of Section 201 quoted above, the Supreme Court agreed with McDonnell. The Court noted that determining whether there were “official acts” under Section 201 requires two steps: first, the Court must determine whether there was a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy,” and if so, then whether the public official took any “decision or action on” that proceeding or controversy.

The Court first held that the terms “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” connote some kind of formal and structured exercise of government power, such as a lawsuit, determination by an agency, or hearing before a committee. The language suggests a specific and focused proceeding where something concrete is to be resolved. Simply arranging a meeting or making a phone call, the Court said, does not rise to this level.

The Court then considered whether making a phone call or arranging a meeting could be considered a “decision or action on” a proceeding or controversy, even if it was not a cause, suit, proceeding or controversy itself. The Court agreed with McDonnell that again these actions were insufficient. Making a phone call, arranging a meeting, or hosting an event is not a “decision” or “action” “on” any matter, suit, or controversy. Again, the language of the statute suggests some formal exercise of power by the official and some kind of substantive decision or action.

The government had argued for a broader interpretation of official acts that would encompass a wider range of activities routinely carried out by public officials, but the Court concluded that its narrower definition was required. Any broader reading, the Court held, would have dangerous constitutional implications due to the potential to criminalize many routine interactions between politicians and supporters that are an inherent part of our current political system. In addition, the government’s broader interpretation posed potential federalism concerns, giving federal prosecutors the power to set the standards of ethics and good behavior for state and local officials.

But the case was not a complete win for McDonnell. The Court rejected his argument that the statutes under which he was convicted should be struck down as unconstitutionally vague, holding that any potential vagueness was cured by the Court’s narrowing interpretation. It also rejected his request that the Court find he did not perform or agree to perform any “official acts” as now defined, holding that this determination should be made by the lower courts in light of the Supreme Court’s holding.

It’s the Agreement That Matters

The actions that McDonnell actually took on Williams’ behalf, the Court held, were not themselves “official acts.” But that is not the end of the inquiry. As the Court noted, for purposes of bribery law what matters is not what the government official actually did but what he agreed to do. The crime is the corrupt deal to sell your office. So even though McDonnell’s phone calls or arranging of meetings may not have been official acts themselves, they could serve as evidence that a corrupt deal existed between McDonnell and Williams in which McDonnell did agree to take official action.

The Court observed there was evidence at trial of things that would qualify as a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” such as the question whether Virginia universities should undertake research studies of Anatabloc. A government official deciding this question would be engaged in official action, as would another official (such as McDonnell) who tried to pressure or persuade that official to act.

The government failed to prove that the things actually done by McDonnell rose to the level of “decisions or actions on” any of these matters. But if there was proof that McDonnell agreed with Williams to take such action, that would be sufficient.

This will likely be the focus of the case going forward. The Fourth Circuit must consider whether there was sufficient evidence introduced for a properly instructed jury to conclude that there was an agreement between Williams and McDonnell for the Governor to engage in official acts – even if he ultimately did not really follow through or was unsuccessful.

What Happens Now

The key problem with McDonnell’s conviction, the Court held, was that the jury instructions did not accurately reflect the legal definition of “official act” that the Court has now adopted. As a result, McDonnell may have been convicted for conduct that does not violate federal bribery law. At a minimum, therefore, he is entitled to a new trial that concludes with new, proper jury instructions.

For now, the Court has sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit. That court is to decide whether, given the evidence at trial, a properly instructed jury could possibly find that an agreement existed between McDonnell and Williams that McDonnell would perform official acts in exchange for the gifts. If so, he could be re-tried and potentially convicted again. On the other hand, if the Fourth Circuit concludes that, in light of the Supreme Court’s holding, there was not sufficient evidence to prove that such an agreement existed, then McDonnell is entitled to have his case dismissed altogether and there will be no new trial. The Supreme Court said it was expressing no opinion on those questions.

Even if the Fourth Circuit determines that the evidence was potentially sufficient, it will be up to the government to decide whether they want to re-try the case. It seems likely that they would, but they would have to make that judgment in light of the Supreme Court’s holding, their own assessment of the evidence, and their judgment about the proper allocation of prosecutorial resources.

Beyond McDonnell, this case represents another narrowing of federal corruption laws by the U.S. Supreme Court. Six years ago in Skilling v. United States, the Court scaled back honest services fraud by limiting that theory to bribery and kickbacks, thus excluding other corrupt conduct such as acting on conflicts of interest. Now in McDonnell the Court has limited all of federal bribery law to an artificially narrow category of “official acts.”

The Court focused solely on the quo side of the bribery, acting out of professed fears that without a narrow definition of “official act” routine political courtesies extended in return for campaign contributions and routine support might  be criminalized. But this fails to take into account both sides of the bribery equation. This was not a campaign contribution case; the gifts from Williams to McDonnell were personal and went into his own pocket. The nature of the gifts themselves is substantial evidence of a corrupt agreement, which would not be true in a case involving routine campaign contributions. It’s not enough that there be a gift; it must be a corrupt gift. By focusing exclusively on the particular trees of McDonnell’s actions rather than the entire quid pro quo agreement, the Court missed the corrupt forest that was the relationship between McDonnell and Williams.

The Supreme Court has essentially ruled that using money to buy access the “little guy” can never hope to have is just politics as usual and is not corrupt — even when the money is in the form not of public campaign contributions but of secret, undisclosed personal gifts. The Court’s artificially narrow concept of “official action” has once again carved out a safe harbor in federal corruption law for behavior that most would consider not just unseemly, but criminal.

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Supreme Court May Use the Bob McDonnell Case to Limit Federal Corruption Laws

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. As regular Sidebars readers know, I’ve followed the case closely, and I was at the Court to hear the arguments. Although it’s always risky to predict results based on the questions from the Justices, it appears that McDonnell and his attorneys have reason to feel pretty optimistic.

One reason they have for optimism is the fact that the Court agreed to hear the case at all; there was no obvious reason to do so. There was no circuit split in the lower courts that the Justices needed to resolve. A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld McDonnell’s convictions, and all the judges of that court had unanimously declined to rehear the case.

But the Supreme Court not only took the case, it took the unusual step of allowing McDonnell to remain free on bond while the case was pending. And during oral argument yesterday it became clear the Court has some deep reservations about the potential breadth of federal bribery laws.

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McDonnell and his attorneys outside the Supreme Court after the arguments

The Supreme Court Arguments 

McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in September 2014 of multiple counts of federal corruption. Over a two-year period they received a series of extravagant gifts and loans worth more than $175,000 from businessman Jonnie Williams. The government charged that, in exchange, the McDonnells agreed to promote Williams’ dietary supplement, Anatabloc, within the Virginia government. (For more detail about the case and my analysis of the charges, you can read some of my earlier posts here and here.)

At the Supreme Court Noel Francisco, arguing for McDonnell, focused on what has been the defense’s primary theme throughout the case: whatever McDonnell may have done for Williams, it did not amount to “official action” for purposes of federal bribery law. He said the government proved only that McDonnell did things such as introduce Williams to other state officials or urge others within the government to meet with Williams to discuss possible research studies. Such steps, he argued, cannot constitute official action unless there is evidence that the governor also tried to influence the outcome of any subsequent meeting.

The distinction, Francisco urged, is between actually making or influencing a government decision and simply providing access to those who might do so. McDonnell, he argued, did only the latter. He said the government’s theory made it possible for politicians to be prosecuted for extending simple political courtesies to a supporter, even if they never tried to exercise actual government power or influence any government decision on that supporter’s behalf.

Some potential cracks did appear in Francisco’s argument during questioning from the Court. Chief Justice Roberts asked about a government employee who worked as a scheduler, whose job it was to arrange meetings with the governor. For that individual, he said, arranging a meeting, “I suppose, would be an official act.” Francisco initially agreed that was possible.

That quickly got him in trouble, however, because it seemed inconsistent with the governor’s claim that simply arranging a meeting can never, by definition, be a official action. Justice Kagan immediately started to probe this point with some follow-up questions, and Francisco quickly backed away from his initial concession. He said although other laws might prohibit the scheduler from taking payments for arranging meetings, it would not violate the bribery laws.

This was actually one of Francisco’s stronger points, which he made several times. Federal bribery law, he argued, is not meant to be a comprehensive ethical code that covers all misconduct. Even if bribery is interpreted more narrowly, as McDonnell urges, that would not necessarily immunize all kinds of misbehavior. There are other laws on the books, as well as personnel regulations and other potential sanctions, that may apply. But bribery law itself, he urged, needs to be more narrowly construed in order to avoid potentially criminalizing a great deal of routine political behavior.

The really tough questioning was reserved for Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, arguing for the government. Dreeben began by trying to focus the Court on the implications of McDonnell’s position. Arranging access or setting up a meeting can absolutely be official action, he argued. Otherwise a governor could set up a “pay to play” system through which he routinely demanded that people pay him in exchange for his agreement to arrange a meeting with other state officials: if you don’t pay, you don’t get the meeting. That seems to be the essence of what the bribery laws prohibit.

Dreeben argued that the implications of a ruling for McDonnell would be staggering. The Court would be saying it is acceptable for officials to sell access to government actors to the highest bidder. He argued that official action encompasses anything ordinarily done in the course of a public official’s duties, including arranging meetings and access. There is no legal basis for the carve-out that McDonnell is seeking for actions that didn’t actually influence the exercise of some government power. To hold otherwise, he argued, would be to create a “recipe for corruption.”

But for the most part, the Court didn’t seem to be buying it. The Justices, of course, have to think not only about the case before them but also about the implications for future cases of any opinion that they write. And several seemed troubled by the implications of the government’s argument that even something as routine as arranging a meeting or writing a letter could potentially support a bribery prosecution.

Justice Breyer in particular seemed very concerned about finding a limiting principle to further define federal bribery. He argued that if the legal standards are too broad it implicates the separation of powers by giving the executive branch, in the form of prosecutors, too much power to dictate the actions of legislative branch officials. He pressed both sides to help the Court find the words to craft the appropriate legal standard.

A great deal of time was spent on hypotheticals. Justice Breyer wondered whether it would be a felony if a constituent took a politician to lunch and bought an expensive bottle of wine, and after lunch the politician wrote a letter to a government agency urging it to act on a matter of interest to that constituent. Chief Justice Roberts imagined a case where a businessman takes a governor for an afternoon of trout fishing, and they discuss whether the business could get tax credits within the state. Is that a felony, he asked? Justice Kennedy asked whether it was a felony for the President to provide access to high-dollar donors.

Dreeben responded by arguing that “official action” is only one aspect of the crime and that the question of official action does not have to carry all of the weight in a bribery case. The prosecution would still have to prove a corrupt quid pro quo, a direct agreement to take the official action in exchange for the particular thing of value. In effect, he said, you have to look at the whole picture, not just the official action side of the equation: “you need to run this through all the elements of the offense.”

Looking at the whole picture, Dreeben also noted, shows why a case involving campaign contributions or routine political support would be very different from the McDonnell case. The Court’s prior decisions make clear that it is not enough simply to show a politician took actions that were desired by someone who contributed to her campaign. Given the nature of the quid, a much stronger direct quid pro quo would need to be shown. But the McDonnell case does not involve campaign contributions, and so those concerns are not implicated.

Corruption, Dreeben concluded, has to include a situation such as this, where a governor calls his Secretary of Health and says “take a meeting with my benefactor.” That means the person who paid the governor “will have the preferential opportunity that other citizens who do not pay will not have” to make their case before the Secretary. That kind of pay to play access is the essence of corruption and should be prohibited. The purpose of bribery law is to ensure that government officials act equally for the benefit of all, and not secretly to benefit those who are paying them off.

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White Collar Crime and Prosecutorial Discretion: The Inherent Tension

As I noted, it’s always risky to try to predict outcomes based on the Court’s questioning. But Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben didn’t seem to be getting a lot of love from the bench. Only Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg seemed to be potentially in his camp. To varying degrees, all of the other Justices who asked questions seemed quite skeptical of the government’s position.

McDonnell’s case may be the latest example of the Supreme Court’s increasing discomfort with a common feature of white collar crime: broadly written laws that then rely on prosecutorial discretion to determine which cases to bring. White collar statutes tend to use expansive language in order to avoid creating loopholes or safe harbors for criminal activity. But as a result, it is often relatively easy to come up with a parade of horribles about hypothetical cases that might fall within the statute.

For example, six years ago in Skilling v. United States the Supreme Court ruled that the crime of honest services fraud should be narrowed to apply to only bribery and kickback cases. I remember during the Skilling arguments Justice Breyer (also the most vocal questioner in the McDonnell argument) expressing incredulity that an employee who called in sick to go to the ballgame could potentially be found guilty of honest services fraud. By limiting honest services fraud to bribes and kickbacks, Skilling excused the truant employee example.

But in fact Skilling did not solve Justice Breyer’s problem. An employee who uses the phone to call in sick to go to the ball game technically commits plain old federal wire fraud – there is no need to rely on honest services fraud. The employee is using the interstate wires to further a scheme to defraud his employer out of his salary. We don’t see such trivial cases clogging the federal courts because thankfully prosecutors exercise their discretion not to bring them – but legally, all of the elements of the offense are met.

Similarly, every witness interviewed by the FBI who lies about a material fact, no matter how trivial, meets the elements of the federal false statements statute. But only a relative handful of such cases end up being prosecuted, most often when there is other criminal conduct involved. If prosecutors actually brought charges every time someone lies to the FBI, they would have time to do little else.

It is similarly easy, as the Court demonstrated during the McDonnell arguments, to come up with hypothetical trivial cases that would violate the bribery laws. If I make an explicit deal with my Senator that if I buy him lunch he will write a letter to another federal agency on my behalf, then technically, yes, that meets the elements of the bribery statute. You don’t see such cases being brought because a) they probably almost never happen; and b) prosecutors recognize they are trivial and prosecuting would not be an appropriate exercise of their discretion.

Again, this breadth is a characteristic of many white collar criminal statutes. And although this did not come up explicitly during the McDonnell arguments, the government’s response to the hypothetical trivial cases effectively has to be, “Yes, that technically violates the statute, but we’d never bring such a case. Trust us.” That’s not a very satisfying answer to many on the Court these days.

This concern about the breadth of many statutes is also a component of the growing concerns these days about over-criminalization. Many are troubled by the fact that so much trivial conduct is potentially covered by federal criminal laws – even though the trivial cases usually do not end up being prosecuted.

But this system, of course, depends on prosecutors doing a good job of exercising their discretion. The Justices may feel an increasing need to limit the scope of some federal criminal statutes in light of their concerns about prosecutors’ charging practices in recent cases. For example, last year in Yates v. United States, prosecutors’ decision to charge a fishing captain with the twenty-year felony for throwing undersized fish overboard arguably led the Court to adopt an artificially narrow reading of a federal obstruction of justice statute. The year before that, in Bond v. United States, the Court expressed great concern over the government’s decision to use a statute prohibiting the use of chemical weapons to charge a jilted wife who sprinkled some caustic chemicals on a doorknob to try to harm her husband’s lover, resulting in only a minor skin irritation.

The Court may conclude that drawing some more limited statutory parameters is particularly appropriate when it comes to public corruption. As Justice Breyer emphasized, there are special separation of powers concerns at work in such cases. The fear is that if corruption laws are too sweeping, unscrupulous prosecutors might use them to take down political opponents.

The alternative to a system of broad statutes coupled with reliance on prosecutorial discretion is one of narrower laws that necessarily leave some loopholes and are easier to circumvent. During the McDonnell arguments, Justice Breyer, for one, seemed perfectly prepared to accept that. He noted that whatever standard the Court announces for “official action” will not be perfect and “will leave some dishonest conduct unprosecuted.” But that may be necessary, he argued, in order to avoid the separation of powers problems that result from the alternative of giving the prosecutor too much power to decide which conduct to punish.

Congress historically has chosen to draft deliberately broad corruption statutes to avoid making the laws easier to evade. As Dreeben noted, for decades those corruption laws have functioned reasonably well. Although no system is perfect, prosecutions involving routine political courtesies and campaign contributions are rare to non-existent – and McDonnell certainly is not such a case. The hypotheticals imagined by the Court are just that. They do not reflect the real world of federal corruption prosecutions, any more than imagined stories of Nationals fans indicted for calling in sick describe the real world of wire fraud.

The question now is whether the Court will nevertheless feel compelled once again to restrict the scope of federal criminal law, even if that means effectively creating a safe harbor for certain kinds of corruption. The impact on both pending and future prosecutions of public corruption could be dramatic.

A decision is expected by this June; Sidebars will keep you posted.

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