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Former Virginia Governor Can’t Use First Amendment Cases to Escape Bribery Conviction, Groups Tell Supreme Court

April 6, 2016

Former Virginia Governor Can’t Use First Amendment Cases to Escape Bribery Conviction, Groups Tell Supreme Court

Adopting McDonnell’s Arguments Would Substitute Kleptocracy for Democracy, Say Public Citizen and Democracy 21

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell is wrong to use two recent U.S. Supreme Court campaign finance rulings to argue that his conviction on bribery charges should be overturned, Public Citizen and Democracy 21 told the court today.

McDonnell received tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, a business executive who wanted the state to advance the interests of his company. McDonnell claims that because he didn’t direct state workers to give favors to Williams but only set up meetings and took other steps to smooth the way for Williams and his company, the payments weren’t bribes. He claims that under the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and McCutcheon v. FEC, merely selling access and influence doesn’t constitute corruption.

In an amicus brief filed in McDonnell v. United States of America, the groups noted that adopting McDonnell’s view would give politicians a green light to show favoritism to moneyed interests in exchange for personal gain. They also noted that Citizens United and McCutcheon don’t apply to McDonnell’s case.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court said the First Amendment permitted corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence elections if they did so completely independently of candidates. In McCutcheon, the court struck down the nation’s aggregate contribution limits as violating the First Amendment.

“McDonnell’s argument equates offers of personal gifts – $20,000 clothing-shopping sprees, undocumented ‘loans,’ and the use of vacation homes and Ferraris – with legitimate campaign contributions,” said Scott Nelson, a Public Citizen attorney who wrote the amicus brief. “Much as we disagree with Citizens United and McCutcheon, McDonnell’s arguments up the corruption ante by another order of magnitude.”

Added Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, “As our amicus brief makes clear, McDonnell cannot use Supreme Court campaign finance decisions to justify receiving personal gifts and benefits in exchange for helping his beneficiary. As flawed and wrong as the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions are, they deal with First Amendment speech issues that are simply not present in the McDonnell conviction.” McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were found guilty of agreeing to do favors for Williams in return for the payoffs he provided. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison and two years of supervised release but is free during the appeals process.

“Adopting McDonnell’s view would substitute the animating principles of kleptocracy for those of democracy,” the brief said.