Posted on Wednesday, date : 25 Jul, 2016by cavazos with no responses
The hit Broadway musical Hamilton depicts a backroom dinner meeting between then Congressman James Madison (Virginia) and the titular Secretary of Treasury, during which Madison proposes a â€œquid pro quoâ€: Hamilton will convince President George Washington to move the nationâ€™s capital to the Potomac in exchange for Madison providing the congressional votes needed to pass Hamiltonâ€™s debt plan. The ostentatious Thomas Jefferson, Madisonâ€™s fellow Virginian, proudly claims to have orchestrated the dinner as a favor to Hamilton, and perhaps because he would like to â€œwork a little closer to home.â€
Hamiltonâ€™s contemporary retelling of an old story feels particularly at home as a reflection of todayâ€™s politics. Consider the case of yet another Virginian: former Governor Robert McDonnell, who was convicted of bribery charges in 2014 for allegedly accepting payments and gifts in exchange for a bit of â€œJeffersonianâ€ event planning on behalf of Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams.
Federal prosecutors alleged that McDonnell contacted Virginia officials on Williamsâ€™ behalf, arranged meetings with officials to discuss Williamsâ€™ products, and hosted events for Williamsâ€™ company at the Governorâ€™s Mansion. According to the Government, these calls, meetings, and events were â€œofficial acts,â€ which McDonnell committed or agreed to commit in exchange for $175,000 in loans and other benefits from Williams in violation of the federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. Â§201. Section 201(a)(3) defines â€œofficial actâ€ as â€œany 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 officialâ€™s official capacity, or in such officialâ€™s place of trust or profit.â€ At trial, the District Court instructed the jury that the term â€œofficial actsâ€ encompassed â€œacts that a public official customarily performs,â€ including acts â€œin furtherance of longer-term goalsâ€ or â€œin a series of steps to exercise influence or achieve an end.â€
Recently, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that the District Courtâ€™s instructions on â€œofficial actâ€ were overly broad, and thus permitted the jury to convict McDonnell for potentially lawful conduct. In McDonnell v. United States, the Court reasoned that merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or contacting an official is not enough to qualify as an official act under 18 U.S.C. Â§201(a)(3). Rather, the official must make a decision or take some action on the matter, or agree to do so. Accordingly, the Court found that the District Courtâ€™s instructions were deficient on the grounds that they failed to:
adequately explain to the jury how to identify the â€œquestion, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversyâ€;
inform the jury that the â€œquestion, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversyâ€ must be more specific and focused than a broad policy objective; and
instruct the jury that, to convict McDonnell, it was required to find that he made a decision or took an actionâ€”or agreed to do soâ€”on the identified â€œquestion, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.â€
The Court overturned McDonnellâ€™s conviction, finding that the deficiencies in the District Courtâ€™s instructions made it possible for the jury to convict McDonnell even if he committed no crime.
The Courtâ€™s narrow interpretation of â€œofficial actâ€ ensures that routine political interactions between â€œconscientious public officialsâ€ and their constituents remain outside the scope of conduct punishable under the federal bribery statute. To prove an â€œofficial act,â€ the Government must show that the parties got to â€œyes,â€ rather than just assume that it happened.
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