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McDonnell v. United States

Justia Summary

Former Virginia Governor McDonnell, and his wife were indicted on honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion charges related to their acceptance of $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other benefits from Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, which developed Anatabloc, a nutritional supplement made from a compound found in tobacco. Williams wanted McDonnell’s assistance in getting public universities to perform research studies on the product. The government asserted that McDonnell committed (or agreed to commit) an “official act” in exchange for the loans and gifts. An “official act” is “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,” 18 U.S.C. 201(a)(3). The claimed “official acts,” included “arranging meetings” for Williams with other Virginia officials, “hosting” events at the Governor’s Mansion, and “contacting other government officials” concerning the studies. The district court instructed the jury that “official act” encompasses “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.” The court declined to give McDonnell’s requested instruction that “merely arranging a meeting, attending an event, hosting a reception, or making a speech are not, standing alone, ‘official acts.’” The Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. An “official act” involves a decision or action (or an agreement to act or decide) on “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” by a formal exercise of governmental power. The pertinent matter must be more focused and concrete than “Virginia business and economic development,” and a decision or action is more than merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or calling another official. The government’s expansive interpretation of “official act” would raise significant constitutional concerns. Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. The jury instructions, therefore, were significantly overinclusive.

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