Former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell won’t be retried on corruption charges accusing him of accepting more than $175,000 in money, luxury goods and trips in exchange for helping a Virginia businessman, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
The decision from federal prosecutors comes after the Supreme Court wiped out McDonnell’s conviction — and a two-year prison sentence for the onetime rising Republican star — in a June decision.
The justices, in an opinion that expressed concern about federal prosecutors overreaching on corruption charges, clarified the federal bribery and honest-services fraud laws for elected officials such as members of Congress. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the opinion that while the case was “distasteful” and its details were even “tawdry,” it dealt with the government’s interpretation of bribery laws.
“After carefully considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
That includes dropping corruption charges against McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, who was sentenced to a year in prison and whose fate was closely tied to that of her husband’s case. The McDonnells stayed out of prison during the appeals process.
During the sometimes-sensational trial, it was revealed that McDonnell and his wife received $20,000 for a New York shopping spree, a monogrammed Rolex watch worth more than $5,000 and use of a convertible Ferrari. The Justice Department contended that in exchange, McDonnell agreed to have his office help businessman Jonnie Williams seek favorable actions from the Virginia state government for a dietary supplement business.
The justices unanimously found that the jury was not properly instructed on the meaning of “official act” under the federal bribery and honest-services fraud laws, which make it a felony to agree to take “official action” in exchange for money, campaign contributions or anything of value.
The court said a more limited interpretation of the term “official act” leaves room for prosecuting corruption while not subjecting officials to prosecution — without fair notice — for the most commonplace interactions with constituents.
The Justice Department’s decision drew criticism from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, which said the Justice Department had a chance to show it was not deterred.
“Instead, the department sent a clear signal that they it would not aggressively enforce corruption laws to hold public officials accountable when they abuse their office,” the group’s Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said in a written statement. “It is our hope that they do not pass on prosecution next time because, rest assured, there will be a next time.”