Supreme Court wrestles with corruption law

Supreme Court wrestles with corruption law
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The Supreme Court is weighing a thorny issue that often bedevils lawmakers on Capitol Hill: how to define corruption.

In reviewing the conviction of former Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), the justices are delving into the broader question of where the ethical lines should be drawn for public officials.


After oral arguments on Wednesday, it appeared the justices might toss out McDonnell’s conviction and set new limits on bribery laws to differentiate a routine duty done on behalf of a business benefactor from government actions persuaded by money and/or gifts.

The justices expressed concern about how far federal prosecutors could go if McDonnell’s conviction were upheld. There’s ambiguity in the law, they suggested. Is sharing a bottle of wine corrupt? How about fishing with a businessman?

“If a senator writes to a federal agency and says, this union or this company is, you know, critical to the economy of my state, and, by the way — he doesn't say this, but, by the way, they are the biggest contributors to his campaign — would you please meet with them? What would not make that a crime?” Justice Samuel Alito asked.

Many lawmakers, while not addressing the accusations against McDonnell, agree that the ethical lines for public officials can be fuzzy.

Unless he’s on a trip, Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksArizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems Freedom Caucus members see openings in leadership MORE (R-Ariz.) told The Hill he’s reluctant to even reimburse himself for gas.

“I take my own truck and just pay for it and in that alone there are questions,” he said. “They say, well, are you contributing to your own campaign? So you’re kind of danged if you do, danged if you don’t, but many times I don’t reimburse myself if there’s any way I can say well, this was partly for personal, too.” 

Franks said lawmakers are keenly aware that one wrong move can make them the target of ethics investigations.

“That’s one of the greatest injustices to be accused of something or successfully prosecuted for something when you honestly did not know where the line was,” Franks said. “That’s something all of us are concerned about.”

Solomon Wisenberg, a defense attorney who specialized in white-collar crimes, said interactions between donors and politicians are part of the political system. 

“It’s very common and literally happens every single day, dozens of times,” he said. “What donors want is access and an ear. Under the facts of this case there is not much evidence that McDonnell gave anything more than that.” 

The former Republican governor and his wife, Maureen, were convicted on 11 counts of fraud for having accepted more than $175,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams Sr., an executive at the dietary supplement company Star Scientific. The gifts included $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding reception, the use of William’s Ferrari and a Rolex watch.

“What this comes down to is you have to make laws unequivocal and understandable, especially a law that you can put someone in jail over,” said Stephen Klein, an attorney at the Pillar of Law Institute, a nonprofit interest firm that’s focused on protecting citizens’ free speech from regulatory overreach.  

“I certainly understand in a general sense why people think what Bob McDonnell did is corrupt, but that doesn’t excuse vague law.”

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchKey Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock Trump awards Medal of Freedom to racing industry icon Roger Penske Trump holds more Medal of Freedom ceremonies than predecessors but awards fewer medals MORE (R-Utah) said the Supreme Court should overturn McDonnell’s conviction.

“Frankly I hope the court establishes once and for all that politics are politics and you better stay out of them and quit trying to make them what they shouldn’t be.” he said.

Hatch disagreed with the notion that corruption laws are too vague, and saidsenators are told very clearly what they can and can’t do. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former federal U.S. attorney, said bribery cases are difficult to prove even when the prosecutor knows the defendant is guilty. Still, that’s going to be true no matter what the language in the statute is, he said.

“There’s always room for improvement in laws, but I think they are pretty clear in forbidding certain lines of payments for benefits to a public official,” he said. “I would say they perhaps should be clarified, but not on the basis of one case.”