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White Collar Attorney Michael J. Petro discusses rules public officials must know to avoid corruption charges for “official acts.”

Robert F. McDonnell v. United States, No. 15-474. Supreme Court of the United States.  Decided June 27, 2016.

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.

In January 2014, Governor McDonnell was indicted for accepting payments, loans, gifts, and other things of value from Williams and Star Scientific in exchange for “performing official actions …”  The charges against him comprised one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, three counts of honest services fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act extortion, six counts of Hobbs Act extortion, and two counts of making a false statement. 

The theory underlying both the honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion charges was that Governor McDonnell had accepted bribes from Williams.  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.   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.”

The issue in this case is the proper interpretation of the term “official act.” Section 201(a)(3) defines an “official act” as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit.”

It is apparent from  United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of Cal., 526 U. S. 398 (1999)  that hosting an event, meeting with other officials, or speaking with interested parties is not, standing alone, a “decision or action” within the meaning of §201(a)(3), even if the event, meeting, or speech is related to a pending question or matter. Instead, something more is required: §201(a)(3) specifies that the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter, or agree to do so.

Under this Court’s precedents, a public official is not required to actually make a decision or take an action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy”; it is enough that the official agree to do so.   The agreement need not be explicit, and the public official need not specify the means that he will use to perform his end of the bargain. Nor must the public official in fact intend to perform the “official act,” so long as he agrees to do so. 

In sum, an “official act” is a decision or action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” The “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee. It must also be something specific and focused that is “pending” or “may by law be brought” before a public official.

To qualify as an “official act,” the public official must make a decision or take an action on that “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” or agree to do so. That decision or action may include using his official position to exert pressure on another official to perform an “official act,” or to advise another official, knowing or intending that such advice will form the basis for an “official act” by another official. Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so)—without more—does not fit that definition of “official act.”

Because the jury was not correctly instructed on the meaning of “official act,” it may have convicted Governor McDonnell for conduct that is not unlawful. For that reason, we cannot conclude that the errors in the jury instructions were “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Neder v. United States, 527 U. S. 1, 16 (1999).

A more limited interpretation of the term “official act” leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.