Saturday, July 2, 2016

GateHouse: Supreme Court refuses to criminalize politics

Matthew T. Mangjno
GateHouse Media
July 1, 2016

This week the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the political corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell. What does the decision mean for politicians, and the public, moving forward?

McDonnell received more than $175,000 in loans and gifts — including a Rolex watch, vacations and partial payment of his daughter’s wedding reception from a Richmond businessman.

The gifts did not violate Virginia law, but federal prosecutors alleged that in exchange for the gifts McDonnell engaged in “official acts” to arrange meetings for the businessman and hosted a reception at the governor’s mansion for a new product launch.

McDonnell’s wife was also charged and her conviction was not before the court.

Although Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., tried to distance himself from the conduct of McDonnell his concerns were clear — the term “official acts” could cover almost any action a public official takes.

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns,”

At trial, prosecutors had to prove that McDonnell committed, or agreed to commit, an “official act” in return for the loans and gifts that he received. The term is defined by federal law as “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 officials’ place of trust or profit.”

According to The Intercept, prosecutors argued that the wording of the definition was intentionally broad and designed to cover “any decision or action, on any question or matter, that may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity.”

Prosecutors contended that “official act” could specifically include arranging meetings, contacting other public officials or hosting an event concerning any subject, including a broad policy initiative such as economic development.

McDonnell argued to the Supreme Court, according to The Intercept, that both the context and a real-world understanding of the role of a public official requires a more narrow reading of the definition of “official act” to cover only those acts which “direct a particular resolution of a specific government decision.”

The Supreme Court unanimously agreed with McDonnell and his lawyers.

“Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time,” wrote Roberts. “The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns — whether it is the union official worried about a plant closing or the homeowners who wonder why it took five days to restore power to their neighborhood after a storm.”

Robert’s wrote that prosecutors “could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships.” For instance, according to the Washington Post, if a union or group made some show of gratitude in the form of a gift, campaign contribution or internal word of praise to its members, the officeholder may be the target of prosecution.

The opinion may not have been entirely clear as to what an “official act” is, but it was clear as to what it is not, “Setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an ‘official act.’”

This decision put the brakes on criminalizing politics. The role of an elected official is to represent the interests of their constituency. Officeholders should and must, help and promote individuals and businesses in their city, state or district. To do anything less would be a disservice, to risk being labeled a criminal in the process is unconscionable.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

To visit the column CLICK HERE

No comments:

Post a Comment