RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — In the eight months since former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted of public corruption, a few developments have gone his way.
The federal appeals court that will hear arguments Tuesday in McDonnell’s case allowed the ex-governor and his wife, Maureen, to remain free on bond while they challenge their convictions. That decision signals that the court believes at least some of the issues raised on appeal are a close call, legal experts say.
Also, a wide range of legal professionals — including law professors, ex-White House lawyers and dozens of former state attorneys general from both major political parties — filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting McDonnell’s position that his convictions were based on a flawed and overly broad interpretation of federal bribery law that makes routine political courtesies a potential crime.
“The support he has received is like the running of the bulls in Pamplona,” said Jacob Frenkel, a white-collar defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. He said the briefs show that “there are significant legal minds from around the country who have great difficulty with the theory of the prosecution and the verdict.”
After a nearly six-week trial that laid bare the embarrassing details of the McDonnells’ crumbling marriage and shaky finances, a jury last September found the couple guilty of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting his company’s nutritional supplements.
McDonnell’s first post-trial break came at sentencing, where he received a lighter-than-expected term of two years. Maureen McDonnell was sentenced to one year and one day.
U.S. District Judge James S. Spencer rejected McDonnell’s bid to remain free during his appeal, but the appellate court reversed that decision.
“You wouldn’t stay the sentence pending appeal unless you thought there was some chance he would succeed,” said Jeff Bellin, a professor at the College of William and Mary Law School and a former federal prosecutor. “It doesn’t mean he will win, but it’s a preliminary decision that went in his favor.”
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments from McDonnell’s lawyers and federal prosecutors at a hearing that is scheduled to last about an hour. The court typically takes several weeks to issue a ruling. The losing side can appeal the panel’s decision to the full appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 4th Circuit has not yet scheduled arguments in Maureen McDonnell’s appeal.
The central issue in McDonnell’s appeal is whether the favors he did for former Star Scientific Inc. CEO amounted to “official acts.” McDonnell arranged meetings with administration officials for Williams, who was seeking state-funded research. The McDonnells also appeared at promotional events and hosted an event to formally launch Star Scientific’s signature product, the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc.
McDonnell’s lawyers have argued in court papers that the meetings were “innocuous” and that there was nothing special about holding an event at the Executive Mansion to boost a Virginia-based business.
“Governor McDonnell never promised anything and never did anything besides extend to Williams the sorts of routine courtesies elected officials throughout the country extend to donors and benefactors every day,” McDonnell’s lawyers wrote in a brief to the appeals court.
But prosecutors say the low-interest loans and lavish gifts — including a $6,500 Rolex watch for McDonnell, about $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories for his wife and a $15,000 check for their daughter’s wedding — pushed the interactions well beyond the scope of routine politics. They have characterized the dealings as a classic “quid pro quo,” the Latin term used in bribery law that means one thing for another.
People who have followed the case closely will be watching for any hints about the judges’ thinking.
“The more the questioning focuses on the big picture, the better it is for the ex-governor’s chances,” Bellin said.
Frenkel said the “official act” issue gives McDonnell the best chance for reversal, although the appeal does raise other objections to the way the trial was conducted. Among them is McDonnell’s claim that he and his wife should have been tried separately.
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