RICHMOND, Virginia — The actions taken by former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in his public corruption case were in some ways more blatant than those of a former congressman who hid nearly $100,000 in bribe money in his freezer, federal prosecutors said Thursday.
Prosecutors made that argument in papers filed with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, disputing McDonnell's claim that his convictions were based on an overly broad interpretation of what constitutes an "official act" by a politician. The appeals court has scheduled arguments in the case for May 12.
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in a joint trial in September of doing favors for former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and low-interest loans. Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison and his wife to one year and one day, but they remain free while they pursue separate appeals.
The former governor argues in his appeal that the actions he took on behalf of Williams — arranging meetings with other state officials and attending or hosting events promoting Star's products — are routine political courtesies and not "official acts" as defined in federal bribery law. Williams was seeking state-backed research on his signature product but never got it.
Prosecutors countered in their 93-page brief that McDonnell's actions fit the definition of "official acts" even better than those taken by former Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, who is serving 13 years in prison for taking bribes in exchange for using his influence to broker business deals with government leaders in Africa.
"Here, defendant directed his action toward subordinate state employees within the branch of government that he controlled as governor," while in the Jefferson case "a congressman took action through meetings, letters, and the like directed at other government agencies or foreign governments," prosecutors wrote.
They also said U.S. District Judge James Spencer's instructions to the jury about official acts in McDonnell's case were "materially indistinguishable" from the instructions given in Jefferson's case, which was upheld by the Richmond-based appeals court.
Government lawyers said there is no merit to McDonnell's claim that he and his wife should have been tried separately and that the jury was not questioned thoroughly enough about pretrial news coverage of the scandal.
They also said there was plenty of evidence to support the jury's conclusion that McDonnell received payments with corrupt intent and as part of a conspiracy. At trial, McDonnell's lawyers tried to show that his marriage was so broken that he could not have conspired with his wife to extract money and gifts from Williams.
The gifts included about $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories for Maureen McDonnell, a Rolex watch for her husband, vacations, golf outings and $15,000 to help pay for a daughter's wedding. Williams also provided $120,000 in loans to help the McDonnells keep two money-losing Virginia Beach rental properties afloat.
Williams received immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying against the McDonnells.
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