Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell contends that if the Supreme Court agrees with prosecutors' broad view of bribery law and allows his corruption convictions to stand, it would make a politician's ordinary interactions with donors a crime and upend the U.S. political process.
The eight justices will hear arguments on Wednesday in the appeal by McDonnell, a former rising star in the Republican Party, of his 2014 conviction arising from gifts from a businessman who sought to promote a dietary supplement. It is the final case they will hear in their term that ends in June.
The legal question concerns whether McDonnell's conduct constituted "official action" in exchange for a thing of value, as required for conviction under federal bribery law. His lawyers contend he merely arranged meetings, asked questions and attended events, the same type of activities that politicians routinely perform in exchange for campaign contributions.
"This case marks the first time in our history that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scales of any government decision," his lead lawyer Noel Francisco told the justices in legal papers.
"Officials routinely arrange meetings for donors, take their calls, politely listen to their ideas, and refer them to aides. In criminalizing those everyday acts, the government has put every federal, state and local official nationwide in its prosecutorial crosshairs," Francisco added.
In court papers, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said the justices in the past have carefully distinguished "general ingratiation" between a politician and a donor from "quid pro quo exchanges - for example, a governor's demanding a $1,000 contribution as the price of an official meeting."
"But no such issue arose here, because the bribes in this case were personal loans and luxury goods, not campaign contributions," Verrilli said.
McDonnell, a former rising star in the Republican Party, and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in 2014 of taking $177,000 in gifts and loans from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison, which he has not yet served.
At trial, prosecutors detailed the lavish lifestyle the McDonnells enjoyed thanks to gifts and sweetheart loans from Williams including vacations, designer clothing and shoes.
The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld McDonnell's conviction last year.
"The concern is that under the lower court's definition of 'official act,' anything that's a means to an end ... is now fair game for prosecution," said former prosecutor David Debold, a white collar crime defense lawyer with the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher law firm.
Tara Malloy, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center campaign finance law watchdog group, said to convict a politician, prosecutors must prove "an explicit corrupt agreement" in which the defendant agrees to do something in return for the money, Malloy said. That is not a factor in routine campaign contributions, Malloy added.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)