Federal government ends case against McDonnells

The federal government’s high-profile criminal case against the former governor of Virginia and his wife on public corruption charges ended abruptly on Thursday afternoon as Justice Department officials said they will ask a judge to dismiss all charges and bar their revival. The case against Robert F. McDonnell and Maureen G. McDonnell apparently was undermined by a Supreme Court decision in June sharply narrowing the definition of the kind of official government actions that could lead to bribery and fraud charges.

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell (credit: Tom Saunders, VDOT)
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell (credit: Tom Saunders, VDOT)

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell (credit: Tom Saunders, VDOT)

In identical motions filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, federal prosecutors asked that both cases be sent back to a trial judge in Richmond so that both indictments would be dismissed “with prejudice” — a phrase that means no new attempt to pursue the charges would be made. (Here is a copy of the motion regarding the ex-governor.)

In a brief statement announcing the move, the Department said only that, “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.”

While the statement added a note of thanks to “the trial team and its investigative partners for their outstanding work on this case,” the final decision appeared to have been counter to a recommendation by the trial team that a new attempt should be made to try the McDonnells. The trial team’s reported recommendation was disclosed recently by The Washington Post.

Although separate charges were filed against the former governor and Mrs. McDonnell, they were tried together, and both were convicted by a federal jury. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and she to a year and a day in prison. Neither has served any of the sentence because both have been free while the governor challenged his conviction in the Supreme Court. The Court unanimously overturned his conviction, but left it to the federal government to decide whether it had enough evidence, after taking account of the new limitation on corruption charges, to stage a new trial.

The decision against going forward appeared to have been made at the highest levels of the Justice Department. No explanation of the strength of any potential new prosecution was included in the public statement by the Department.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court had harsh words for the governor and his wife, based on evidence in the case that they took large sums of money and luxury gifts and entertainment from a Virginia businessman who had sought the governor’s help in having state agencies assist in promoting a supplement that the businessman’s firm had developed from tobacco leaves.

The governor maintained throughout that he simply did the kind of courtesies for a constituent that were normal for an elected public official. The Supreme Court largely agreed with the defense lawyers that prosecutors and the trial judge used too broad an interpretation of “official acts” that would be taken into account to see if fraud or bribery had occurred.

Although the former governor and his wife were convicted separately, it has been generally understood that the case against her largely was based upon the evidence against her husband’s acts as governor. Her conviction had not yet been reviewed by the Fourth Circuit Court, which earlier had upheld the governor’s conviction and sentence.

Legendary journalist Lyle Denniston is Constitution Daily’s Supreme Court correspondent. Denniston has written for us as a contributor since June 2011. Denniston has covered the Supreme Court since 1958. His work also appears on lyldenlawnews.com.