STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Virginia's former governor wants the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out his corruption conviction. This is all about what counts as corruption and what counts as politics.
Bob McDonnell says his ordinary political acts should not have been called crimes. Federal prosecutors warn that overturning his conviction would cripple their efforts to fight corruption. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Bob McDonnell was the golden boy of the Virginia Republican Party when he was elected governor in 2009 with a star so bright that he was often mentioned for the GOP presidential ticket. But from the moment he took office, McDonnell and his wife were also broke, owing some $90,000 in credit card debt. In addition, McDonnell and his sister were forced to borrow $160,000 from friends and family to meet expenses on two heavily mortgaged rental properties they bought.
Enter Jonnie Williams, a Virginia businessman whose company, Star Scientific, had developed a dietary supplement called Anatabloc that would be worth much more if it were approved by the FDA as a pharmaceutical. Winning FDA approval, however, required extensive scientific testing. And Williams' company couldn't afford to pay for it. He wanted the research conducted instead by two Virginia universities.
Soon, the governor's wife would ask Williams for a $50,000 loan and help defraying the cost of their daughter's wedding. Williams called the governor to confirm he knew about the loan, and McDonnell thanked Williams for his financial help. Three days later, McDonnell instructed an aide to forward material about Williams' company to the secretary of health. In all, Williams would eventually provide the McDonnells $120,000 in personal loans, luxury gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars more. And the businessman donated $100,000 to the governor's political action committee.
During the same period, McDonnell asked the state health secretary to send his deputy to a meeting with Williams and Mrs. McDonnell. McDonnell's political action committee paid for a luncheon at the governor's mansion to launch Anatabloc and other social contacts were arranged at the mansion and elsewhere to introduce Williams to people who might help his company.
But importantly, the research sought by Star Scientific never actually took place. None of the gifts to the McDonnells was illegal under state law, but the federal government eventually charged the governor and his wife with 11 counts of conspiracy to commit fraud under federal law. McDonnell himself was accused of depriving the citizens of Virginia of his honest services by accepting bribes in exchange for performing official acts to benefit Williams' company. McDonnell said from the get-go that while his judgment had been in error, he did nothing illegal.
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BOB MCDONNELL: Federal officials in Washington, in their zeal to find a basis for charging Maureen and me, have decided to stretch the law to its breaking point.
TOTENBERG: His conviction, however, was upheld by the Federal Court of Appeals based in Richmond. And he appealed to the Supreme Court, which will hear starkly opposing arguments today. On one side is the government, contending essentially that this is a no-brainer. The McDonnells solicited a total of $120,000 in undisclosed loans. No payments were made on the loans until the couple learned they were under investigation. And while receiving these loans, plus luxury gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars more, the governor, sometimes within minutes of soliciting or receiving these benefits, took actions aimed at helping Star Scientific.
McDonnell's lawyers reject this portrait entirely. They contend that the things the governor did for Jonnie Williams and his company were nothing more than the most routine political activities, namely, arranging meetings, asking questions and attending events. They'll tell the court that Governor McDonnell never exercised any governmental power on Williams' behalf, never promised to do so or pressured others to do so.
The defense notes that part of being an elected official is that officials routinely arrange meetings for donors, take their calls, politely listen to their ideas and refer them to aids. In criminalizing these everyday acts, the defense argues, the government has put every federal state and local official nationwide in its prosecutorial crosshairs with a broad, amorphous and unconstitutional definition of public corruption. Now the Supreme Court will decide. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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