WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors on Thursday dropped corruption charges against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his wife, bringing to a close a case that had tarnished the once-rising star of the Republican Party.
“After carefully considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further,” the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement, which also commended the prosecutors who tried the case.
McDonnell reacted with gratitude toward the federal government, calling its announcement a “final day of vindication.”
“Throughout this ordeal I have strongly proclaimed my innocence,” he said in a statement. “I would never do, nor consider doing, anything that would violate the trust of the citizens of Virginia I served during 22 years in state elected office. These wrongful convictions were based on a false narrative and incorrect law.”
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out McDonnell’s bribery convictions in a ruling that could make it tougher to prosecute politicians for corruption.
The eight justices, liberals and conservatives alike, overturned McDonnell’s 2014 conviction, saying that his conduct fell short of a “official act” in exchange for a bribe as required for conviction under federal bribery law.
“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for a unanimous court. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
Jurors had convicted McDonnell for accepting $177,000 in luxury gifts and sweetheart loans to him and his wife Maureen McDonnell from a wealthy Richmond businessman seeking to promote a dietary supplement.
He was sentenced to two years in prison but remained free pending appeal.
The case was a rare instance of the nation’s highest court reviewing a high-level public official’s criminal conviction. When the case was heard in April, the court sent strong signs that it might side with McDonnell.
During the hearing, Roberts pointed to a legal brief supporting McDonnell that was filed by a bipartisan group of government attorneys under both Republican and Democratic presidents ― who warned the Supreme Court that a broad reading of what counts as corruption could criminalize everyday politics.
“I think it’s extraordinary that those people agree on anything,” Roberts said about the court filing. “To agree on something as sensitive as this and to be willing to put their names on something that says this cannot be prosecuted conduct — I think it’s extraordinary.”
The court sent the case back to lower courts to determine if there was sufficient evidence for a jury to convict McDonnell, which had kept alive the possibility of a new trial.
McDonnell served as governor from 2010 to 2014 and once was considered as a possible U.S. vice presidential candidate. His wife was convicted in a separate trial and given a one-year sentence but remained free while pursuing a separate appeal.
The Supreme Court ruling effectively applied to Maureen McDonnell too, meaning that her conviction also had to be tossed out. Her attorney was grateful for the government’s decision.
“We thank the Department of Justice for the care with which they reviewed the case,” said attorney William Burck in a statement. “We are thrilled and thankful that Maureen can now move on with her life.”
Noel Francisco, who represented Bob McDonnell before the Supreme Court, told The National Law Journal on Thursday that he was “absolutely delighted” for his client and that he planned to celebrate by enjoying some scotch ― the same drink he poured himself in June after the high court ruled.
McDonnell, for his part, responded in a more spiritual tone and said he’d now use this moment to consider life beyond politics.
“I have begun to consider how I might repurpose my life for further service to my fellow man outside of elected office. Polls and politics no longer seem that important. People and policies are,” he said in his statement.
Cristian Farias reported from New York. This article has been updated with reactions from Bob McDonnell and one of his lawyers.