The Supreme Court's determination that many limits on big-money political contributions violate constitutional free-speech rights have undermined the federal government's case against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, his lawyers argued in court filings Monday.
McDonnell's lawyers said last month's McCutcheon v. FEC decision, which voided the overall federal limit on individuals' campaign contributions, and the landmark 2010 Citizens United that lifted restrictions on independent political spending show the high court's definition of political corruption is significantly narrower than how federal prosecutors define it.
“The government's broad construction would directly infringe core First Amendment freedoms,” the lawyers wrote.
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were charged in January of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, the former CEO of dietary supplements maker Star Scientific Inc., in exchange for helping promote his products. They have pleaded not guilty and their trial is set for July.
Much of the pre-trial feuding has focused on the legal definition of “official” acts, and whether the McDonnells abused their office by opening up the Executive Mansion for a launch party for a Star Scientific product, arranged for a meeting between Williams and a state health official and talked up the benefits of his company's dietary supplement Anatabloc.
Prosecutors contend that those actions are “official acts” under federal law and part of a “quid pro quo bribe scheme” from which the McDonnells received loans, a Rolex watch, designer clothes, golf outings, $15,000 for catering a daughter's wedding reception and other gifts.
But the former first couple's lawyers have argued that the McDonnells did not do anything for Williams in return for those gifts and loans that they wouldn't have done for other Virginia business owners.
Defense lawyers cited the Citizens United case when seeking to dismiss most of the charges in a March filing. They argued Monday that the Supreme Court had been more detailed in defining corruption in last month's McCutcheon case, declaring that the government should not target the “general gratitude” a candidate has for supporters or “the political access such support may afford.”
Last month, prosecutors argued that the former governor's lawyers have shown a “fixation on campaign-finance law” that is irrelevant to the case.
“Not one penny of the $120,000 in loans, the $15,000 check to subsidize the defendants' daughter's wedding, the free vacations, or any of the other graft charged here was a campaign contribution,” prosecutors wrote.
Barry Pollack, a white-collar defense attorney in Washington, said that while campaign-finance related rulings aren't the “perfect analogy” to the McDonnell case, they shouldn't be quickly dismissed. Pollack said the courts have had difficulty pinning a legal definition to what constitutes corrupt intent and any high court ruling that clarifies that definition “ought to be instructive.”
Also on Monday, defense attorneys argued they should have a greater say than prosecutors in picking jurors for the trial. McDonnell's lawyers argued that pretrial publicity “has tipped heavily against” their client, in part because of anonymous leaks to the media last year during the federal investigation of the McDonnells.
As such, defense lawyers want 10 peremptory challenges -- where lawyers can have a potential juror dismissed without cause -- for both McDonnell and his wife while prosecutors would get six challenges.