SCOTUS Narrows Bribery Definition Applied to Government Officials

Beyond what even the Supreme Court describes as “tawdy tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns,” McDonnell v. United States deals with a practical issue many elected officials confront at some point in their political career: when and how can you help someone who has helped you? 

The Court unanimously reversed former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s bribery conviction. The Court held that setting up meetings, calling other public officials, and hosting events do not alone qualify as “official acts.”

While in office McDonnell accepted more than $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other benefits from Jonnie Williams. Williams wanted a Virginia state university to test a dietary supplement, Anatabloc, his company, Star Scientific, had developed.

Federal bribery statutes make it a crime for public officials to “receive or accept anything of value” in exchange for being “influenced in the performance of any official act.”

The federal government claimed McDonnell committed at least five official acts including arranging for Williams to meet with Virginia government officials and recommending that senior government officials meet with Star executives, and hosting and attending events at the Governor’s mansion designed to encourage Virginia university researchers to study Anatabloc and allowing Williams to invite individuals of importance to Star’s business to exclusive events at the Governor’s mansion.

Williams argued that these acts which didn’t “direct[] a particular resolution of a specific governmental decision” or pressure another government official to act, in and of themselves, aren’t “official acts.” The Supreme Court agreed.

An “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, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit.”

The Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, found a number of “questions or matters” in this case including whether researchers at a Virginia university would study Anatabloc. But merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or calling another official does not qualify as a “decision or action” on any of these questions or matters.

“Simply expressing support for the research study at a meeting, event, or call—or sending a subordinate to such a meeting, event, or call—similarly does not qualify as a decision or action on the study, as long as the public official does not intend to exert pressure on another official or provide advice, knowing or intending such advice to form the basis for an ‘official act.’ Otherwise, if every action somehow related to the research study were an ‘official act,’ the requirement that the public official make a decision or take an action on that study, or agree to do so, would be meaningless.”

The Court partly rested its decision on a concern that as a result of a broad definition of “official acts” government officials would be less willing to assist citizens and citizens would be less willing to contribute to campaigns.

The lower court will decide whether charges against McDonnell should be dismissed based on its new definition of “official acts” or whether McDonnell should receive a new trial.