The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned Bob McDonnell’s corruption convictions on June 27. The Court held that the actions McDonnell took in exchange for the secret gifts and loans he received from businessman Jonnie Williams did not constitute “official acts” within the meaning of federal bribery law. I’ve written here and here about why I think the Court’s decision is wrong. But in this post I’d like to examine a different aspect of the case: how a tactical move by the defense, months before trial, may well have been the key to McDonnell’s ultimate victory.
As I noted, the basis of the Supreme Court’s decision was its conclusion that McDonnell did not perform “official acts.” If you’ve been reading the commentary about the case for the past two years, you could be forgiven for thinking it was always clear that the definition of “official act” was the key issue. Virtually all media reports focused on the question of “official acts.” At trial, in the court of appeals, and in the Supreme Court, both sides agreed this was the relevant test. In its decision the Supreme Court simply noted, with no analysis, that both sides agreed the government was required to prove that McDonnell agreed to perform “official acts” in exchange for the bribes.
But in fact, it’s far from clear that this focus on “official acts” was the proper legal standard by which to judge McDonnell’s actions. That this became the central legal issue in the case is a testament to the skill of McDonnell’s defense team. By convincing both the prosecutors and the trial court that this was the correct legal standard, they may have won McDonnell’s case months before his trial even began.
The Definition of “Official Act”
The Supreme Court began its analysis by stating: “The issue in this case is the proper interpretation of the term ‘official act.'” The definition of “official act” in question comes from the federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. §201. Section 201(a)(3) provides:
the term “official act” means 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, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit.
Under Section 201(b)(2)(A), a public official is guilty of bribery if he or she “corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept” anything of value in exchange for being influenced in the performance of any such “official act.”
The Supreme Court agreed with McDonnell that this definition of “official act” envisions some formal exercise of government power; a public official making a decision or taking action on a particular question or matter. The bulk of the legal portion of the Court’s opinion is a rather dry analysis of the “official act” definition quoted above, with the Court using tools of statutory construction to decide what is meant by a “decision or action on” a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy.”
The Court held that if all McDonnell agreed to do was introduce Williams to others in the Virginia government who might help him, or hold an event at the Governor’s mansion to promote Williams’ product, these were simply routine political courtesies and did not represent the kind of exercise of government power that this definition suggests. Because the jury was not properly instructed on the definition of “official act” as announced by the Court, the convictions were vacated and the case sent back to the lower courts.
This may all sound unremarkable, but for one fact: McDonnell was never charged with violating 18 U.S.C. §201. That statute applies only to bribery by federal public officials or those acting on behalf of the federal government. As a state governor acting on state matters, McDonnell was not covered. The really unusual thing about the McDonnell opinion is that it consists almost entirely of analysis of a statute that no one in the case was charged with violating.
The Charges in McDonnell’s Case
McDonnell was actually indicted for violating two different corruption statutes: Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right and honest services wire fraud. These are two of the most common vehicles for the federal prosecution of state or local corruption. The Supreme Court held, in Evans v. United States, that Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right is basically the equivalent of bribery. And in the landmark 2010 case of Skilling v. United States, the Supreme Court held that honest services fraud applies only to bribery and kickbacks.
Both the Hobbs Act and honest services fraud, therefore, may be used to prosecute bribery — but neither statute defines that term. From the beginning of the case, McDonnell’s defense team successfully argued that since these statutes don’t define bribery, courts should use the definition of bribery found in a different federal statute, 18 U.S.C. §201. And this led to the focus on whether McDonnell had performed “official acts” within the meaning of that law.
At first glance this argument seems reasonable: why not look to another federal statute for the definition of bribery under the Hobbs Act and honest services fraud? But as I argued in greater detail in this earlier post, using the Section 201 definition of bribery for purposes of these other statutes actually makes little sense.
In Skilling the Court said that honest services fraud applies to bribery – but it didn’t say “bribery as defined in 18 U.S.C. §201.” And upon reading Skilling it is clear that the Court had a broader, more general concept of bribery in mind. For example, honest services fraud applies to state and local public officials like McDonnell who would not be subject to bribery charges under § 201. It also applies to private sector bribery, such as an employee who violates his duty of honest services to his employer by accepting payments from a competitor to sell his employer’s secrets. Private sector bribery is not covered by 18 U.S.C. §201 and private individuals cannot, by definition, perform “official acts.” It cannot be that bribery for purposes of honest services fraud is equivalent to bribery as defined by 18 U.S.C. §201, because much of the bribery unquestionably covered by honest services fraud would not violate §201.
When the Skilling Court defined honest services fraud it looked to the broader universe of bribery law and drew upon many cases that would not have fallen under 18 U.S.C. §201. In fact, the Court expressly noted (in footnote 45) that honest services fraud, as it was defining it, reached well beyond the scope of 18 U.S.C. §201.
Similarly, Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right applies to bribery by state and local officials, who are not covered by Section 201. The definitions of Section 201 are therefore similarly inadequate to cover all of the conduct encompassed by Hobbs Act extortion.
The McDonnell case might also leave the impression that every instance of federal bribery under Section 201 involves “official acts” – but that too is incorrect. Section 201 defines three different ways to commit bribery, and only one of them involves official acts. Bribery is also committed by an official who accepts a thing of value in exchange for being induced to do or omit to do any act in violation of his or her official duty (18 U.S.C. §201(b)(2)(C)) or in exchange for agreeing to help commit a fraud against the United States (18 U.S.C. §201(b)(2)(B)). Even within the federal bribery statute itself, the crime of bribery is not limited by a focus only on whether an official performed “official acts.” Why should bribery for honest services fraud or the Hobbs Act be so limited?
The Essence of Bribery
Bribery is an ancient common-law crime that was around long before Congress attempted to define it in one statute. There is nothing magical about the definition in 18 U.S.C. §201, and as we’ve seen, that definition is inadequate to capture all cases covered by honest services fraud or Hobbs Act extortion. The key to bribery is the corrupt agreement to be influenced, or quid pro quo. It’s the influence component that is critical, more than the precise nature of the action taken. Bribery corrupts the political system because the actions of the public official are being altered for an improper purpose. The recipient of a bribe is influenced to act not in the best interests of all but rather to benefit the person who paid the bribe. Similarly, the bribe payer obtains political favors or exercises of power that are unavailable to the general public, thanks to a corrupt deal to reward the public official in exchange.
When defining bribery, the Supreme Court could have looked to many sources. For example, one standard authority, the Model Penal Code (§240.1), defines bribery as agreeing to accept “any pecuniary benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision, opinion, recommendation, vote or other exercise of discretion as a public servant.” The heart of the crime is the same: the quid pro quo, exchange of something of value to influence an official’s discretionary action. But the language is much more general than §201(a)(3) and does not include the specific focus on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.”
Other possible sources include other laws. In a case involving the Virginia governor it might make sense, for example, to consider the Virginia state bribery statute, since it was the citizens of Virginia to whom McDonnell owed a duty of honest services. Virginia law tracks the Model Penal Code and provides that a public official is guilty of bribery if he or she accepts any pecuniary benefit from another in exchange for being influenced in a “decision, opinion, recommendation, vote or other exercise of discretion as a public servant.” VA Code §18.2-447(2). This definition, particularly the references to the official making a “recommendation” or the “exercise of discretion,” seems clearly to cover some of the actions taken by McDonnell.
The Court in McDonnell also could have looked to the many other state and local bribery cases that historically have been prosecuted as honest services fraud. If it surveyed those cases it would have found a wide variety of state law definitions of bribery that do not include the restrictive “official act” definition of Section 201.
In short, there is no reason to believe that meeting the precise definition of “official act” in 18 U.S.C. §201 should be required in all federal bribery prosecutions under all statutes. Up until McDonnell, the Supreme Court had never held that the specific language of Section 201 applied in prosecutions of honest services fraud or Hobbs Act extortion. But thanks to the efforts of McDonnell’s defense team, by the time the case arrived at the Supreme Court everyone, including the Justices, simply assumed this was the correct standard.
How “Official Acts” Became the Focus
So how did the McDonnell case end up focusing on “official acts?” There is some suggestion in the early pleadings that this was not always a foregone conclusion. In a defense motion filed on January 21, 2014, the same day the indictment was returned, the defense said the government had suggested that bribery under honest services fraud and the Hobbs Act may not require proof of “official acts” as defined in 18 U.S.C. §201. (It’s unclear when and where the government may have made that argument; perhaps it was in pre-indictment meetings with the defense team.) In that same motion the defense argued vigorously against this broader definition and pushed their claim that the government was required to prove “official acts.”
By the time the government responded to that defense motion in February, it appears the prosecution had made a tactical decision to agree that proving “official acts” as defined in §201(a)(3) was required. From that point on, up to and including in the Supreme Court, both sides proceeded on the assumption that this was the proper standard. Although some organizations that filed amicus briefs expressed some doubts on this point, for the most part everyone else also agreed that the government had to prove McDonnell performed “official acts.”
It appears to me the defense made an aggressive early effort to narrow the playing field to McDonnell’s advantage by insisting that the “official act” definition applied, and the prosecutors ultimately acquiesced. This may be a decision the government now regrets.
The Consequences of a Definition
It’s hard to overstate the importance to McDonnell’s case of this focus on “official acts.” First of all, from day one, it allowed the defense to shift the narrative: “This case is not really about corruption and buying access, it’s about a technical dispute over the meaning of a statute. Let’s not focus on the corrupt deal where the Governor agreed to use the powers of his office to benefit the man who was secretly paying him off. Instead, let’s focus on whether McDonnell’s actions fit some precise statutory definition.” Legalistic and kind of boring; not sexy and corrupt.
Lawyers all know the old saying: “When the facts are with you, pound the facts. When the law is with you, pound the law. And when neither the facts nor the law are with you, pound the table.” The facts clearly were not with McDonnell; whether the law was with him is a matter of debate, but there’s no doubt the defense did a great job of pounding the law and thereby shifting the entire focus of the case.
Similarly, in the Supreme Court, the emphasis on “official acts” meant that we ended up with an opinion consisting largely of a dry, lawyerly statutory analysis of what precisely is meant by a “decision or action on” a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” If this had not been the focus, perhaps the Court would have been forced to grapple with the nature of the crime of bribery itself – the quid and the pro, not just the quo – and the overall corrupt agreement between McDonnell and Williams. Perhaps the opinion would have stepped back and seen the big picture, how secretly purchasing the kind of access and influence that Williams obtained is precisely what the crime of bribery is supposed to prevent. Instead, the Court dove down into the weeds of statutory interpretation and never emerged.
We will never know for certain whether the outcome in McDonnell would have changed had the definition of “official act” not become the focus of the case. But the defense victory on this one legal issue, months before trial and more than two years before the Supreme Court’s decision, may ultimately have been the key to McDonnell’s win.
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