McDonnell v. United States

Citation195 L.Ed.2d 639,136 S.Ct. 2355
Decision Date27 June 2016
Docket NumberNo. 15–474.,15–474.
Parties Robert F. McDONNELL, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Noel J. Francisco, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

John L. Brownlee, Jerrold J. Ganzfried, Steven D. Gordon, Timothy J. Taylor, Holland & Knight LLP, Washington, DC, Noel J. Francisco, Henry W. Asbill, Yaakov M. Roth, Charlotte H. Taylor, James M. Burnham, Jones Day, Washington, DC, for petitioner.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Brian H. Fletcher, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Sonja M. Ralston, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for respondent.

Chief Justice ROBERTS

delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 2014, the Federal Government indicted former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, on bribery charges. The charges related to the acceptance by the McDonnells of $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other benefits from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams, while Governor McDonnell was in office. Williams was the chief executive officer of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that had developed a nutritional supplement

made from anatabine, a compound found in tobacco. Star Scientific hoped that Virginia's public universities would perform research studies on anatabine, and Williams wanted Governor McDonnell's assistance in obtaining those studies.

To convict the McDonnells of bribery, the Government was required to show that Governor McDonnell committed (or agreed to commit) an "official act" in exchange for the loans and gifts. The parties did not agree, however, on what counts as an "official act." The Government alleged in the indictment, and maintains on appeal, that Governor McDonnell committed at least five "official acts." Those acts included "arranging meetings" for Williams with other Virginia officials to discuss Star Scientific's product, "hosting" events for Star Scientific at the Governor's Mansion, and "contacting other government officials" concerning studies of anatabine. Supp. App. 47–48. The Government also argued more broadly that these activities constituted "official action" because they related to Virginia business development, a priority of Governor McDonnell's administration. Governor McDonnell contends that merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or contacting an official—without more—does not count as an "official act."

At trial, the District Court instructed the jury according to the Government's broad understanding of what constitutes an "official act," and the jury convicted both Governor and Mrs. McDonnell on the bribery charges. The Fourth Circuit affirmed Governor McDonnell's conviction, and we granted review to clarify the meaning of "official act."


On November 3, 2009, petitioner Robert McDonnell was elected the 71st Governor of Virginia. His campaign slogan was "Bob's for Jobs," and his focus in office was on promoting business in Virginia. As Governor, McDonnell spoke about economic development in Virginia "on a daily basis" and attended numerous "events, ribbon cuttings," and "plant facility openings." App. 4093, 5241. He also referred thousands of constituents to meetings with members of his staff and other government officials. According to longtime staffers, Governor McDonnell likely had more events at the Virginia Governor's Mansion to promote Virginia business than had occurred in "any other administration." Id., at 4093.

This case concerns Governor McDonnell's interactions with one of his constituents, Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams. Williams was the CEO of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that developed and marketed Anatabloc, a nutritional supplement

made from anatabine, a compound found in tobacco. Star Scientific hoped to obtain Food and Drug Administration approval of Anatabloc as an anti-inflammatory drug. An important step in securing that approval was initiating independent research studies on the health benefits of anatabine. Star Scientific hoped Virginia's public universities would undertake such studies, pursuant to a grant from Virginia's Tobacco Commission.

Governor McDonnell first met Williams in 2009, when Williams offered McDonnell transportation on his private airplane to assist with McDonnell's election campaign. Shortly after the election, Williams had dinner with Governor and Mrs. McDonnell at a restaurant in New York. The conversation turned to Mrs. McDonnell's search for a dress for the inauguration, which led Williams to offer to purchase a gown for her. Governor McDonnell's counsel later instructed Williams not to buy the dress, and Mrs. McDonnell told Williams that she would take a rain check. Id., at 2203–2209.

In October 2010, Governor McDonnell and Williams met again on Williams's plane. During the flight, Williams told Governor McDonnell that he "needed his help" moving forward on the research studies at Virginia's public universities, and he asked to be introduced to the person that he "needed to talk to." Id., at 2210–2211. Governor McDonnell agreed to introduce Williams to Dr. William Hazel, Virginia's Secretary of Health and Human Resources. Williams met with Dr. Hazel the following month, but the meeting was unfruitful; Dr. Hazel was skeptical of the science behind Anatabloc and did not assist Williams in obtaining the studies. Id., at 2211–2217, 3738–3749.

Six months later, Governor McDonnell's wife, Maureen McDonnell, offered to seat Williams next to the Governor at a political rally. Shortly before the event, Williams took Mrs. McDonnell on a shopping trip and bought her $20,000 worth of designer clothing. The McDonnells later had Williams over for dinner at the Governor's Mansion, where they discussed research studies on Anatabloc. Id., at 6560.

Two days after that dinner, Williams had an article about Star Scientific's research e-mailed to Mrs. McDonnell, which she forwarded to her husband. Less than an hour later, Governor McDonnell texted his sister to discuss the financial situation of certain rental properties they owned in Virginia Beach. Governor McDonnell also e-mailed his daughter to ask about expenses for her upcoming wedding.

The next day, Williams returned to the Governor's Mansion for a meeting with Mrs. McDonnell. At the meeting, Mrs. McDonnell described the family's financial problems, including their struggling rental properties in Virginia Beach and their daughter's wedding expenses. Mrs. McDonnell, who had experience selling nutritional supplements

, told Williams that she had a background in the area and could help him with Anatabloc. According to Williams, she explained that the "Governor says it's okay for me to help you and—but I need you to help me. I need you to help me with this financial situation." Id., at 2231. Mrs. McDonnell then asked Williams for a $50,000 loan, in addition to a $15,000 gift to help pay for her daughter's wedding, and Williams agreed.

Williams testified that he called Governor McDonnell after the meeting and said, "I understand the financial problems and I'm willing to help. I just wanted to make sure that you knew about this." Id., at 2233. According to Williams, Governor McDonnell thanked him for his help. Ibid. Governor McDonnell testified, in contrast, that he did not know about the loan at the time, and that when he learned of it he was upset that Mrs. McDonnell had requested the loan from Williams. Id., at 6095–6096. Three days after the meeting between Williams and Mrs. McDonnell, Governor McDonnell directed his assistant to forward the article on Star Scientific to Dr. Hazel.

In June 2011, Williams sent Mrs. McDonnell's chief of staff a letter containing a proposed research protocol for the Anatabloc studies. The letter was addressed to Governor McDonnell, and it suggested that the Governor "use the attached protocol to initiate the Virginia Study of Anatabloc at the Medical College of Virginia and the University of Virginia School of Medicine." Id., at 2254. Governor McDonnell gave the letter to Dr. Hazel. Id., at 6121–6122. Williams testified at trial that he did not "recall any response" to the letter. Id., at 2256.

In July 2011, the McDonnell family visited Williams's vacation home for the weekend, and Governor McDonnell borrowed Williams's Ferrari while there. Shortly thereafter, Governor McDonnell asked Dr. Hazel to send an aide to a meeting with Williams and Mrs. McDonnell to discuss research studies on Anatabloc. The aide later testified that she did not feel pressured by Governor or Mrs. McDonnell to do "anything other than have the meeting," and that Williams did not ask anything of her at the meeting. Id., at 3075. After the meeting, the aide sent Williams a "polite blow-off" e-mail. Id., at 3081.

At a subsequent meeting at the Governor's Mansion, Mrs. McDonnell admired Williams's Rolex and mentioned that she wanted to get one for Governor McDonnell. Williams asked if Mrs. McDonnell wanted him to purchase a Rolex for the Governor, and Mrs. McDonnell responded, "Yes, that would be nice." Id., at 2274. Williams did so, and Mrs. McDonnell later gave the Rolex to Governor McDonnell as a Christmas present.

In August 2011, the McDonnells hosted a lunch event for Star Scientific at the Governor's Mansion. According to Williams, the purpose of the event was to launch Anatabloc. See id., at 2278. According to Governor McDonnell's gubernatorial counsel, however, it was just lunch. See id., at 3229–3231.

The guest list for the event included researchers at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University. During the event, Star Scientific distributed free samples of Anatabloc, in addition to eight $25,000 checks that researchers could use in preparing grant proposals for studying Anatabloc. Governor McDonnell asked researchers at...

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