On June 27, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in which it overturned the conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell for honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion charges related to the acceptance of $175,000 worth of gifts, loans, and other benefits from businessman Jonnie Williams.  At trial, the government was required to prove that McDonnell committed or agreed to commit an “official act,” as defined in the domestic bribery statute, in exchange for loans and gifts. The government brought forth evidence that the governor arranged meetings, hosted events, and spoke to other government officials about Mr. Williams and the pharmaceutical products he was hoping to market.  The District Court had instructed the jury that an “official act” encompassed “acts that a public official customarily performs,” including acts “in furtherance of longer-term goals” or “in a series of steps to exercise influence or achieve an end,” and the governor was convicted of committing such official acts.  However, the Court disagreed, instead ruling that a public official must exercise formal governmental power by making a decision or taking an action on a specific and focused pending matter.  The Court thus held that, “setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event – without more – does not fit that definition of official act,” and the matter acted upon had to be more focused and concrete than “Virginia’s business and economic development,” as had been alleged in court.  The Court left to the Fourth Circuit the question of McDonnell’s guilt under its narrower interpretation of the law.  McDonnell had also argued that the Hobbs Act and honest services fraud statute were unconstitutionally vague, but the Court determined that the narrow interpretation of the term “official act” avoided vagueness concerns.  McDonnell v. United States, No. 15-474 (S. Ct.).

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