U.S. Supreme Court Should Reject Former Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Claim that Citizens United Sanctions His Acceptance of Bribes

Allowing Public Officials to Engage in Public Business for Private Gain Undercuts Basic Principles of Our Democracy

WASHINGTON – The Campaign Legal Center today told the U.S. Supreme Court in a friend-of-the-court brief that it should reject former Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell’s claim that the First Amendment protects political quid pro quos in the case McDonnell v. United States.

“If the Supreme Court buys into former Gov. McDonnell’s arguments, politicians face no penalty for freely accepting gifts and favors from America’s wealthiest who are trying to buy influence,” said Tara Malloy, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. “Public officials should not be permitted to engage in public business for private gain, while pretending to represent the interests of their constituencies. That would undercut the very basic principles of our democracy and the integrity of our political system.”

Gov. McDonnell accepted from a wealthy business man and founder of the dietary supplement company Star Scientific Inc., Johnnie R. Williams, Sr., up to $175,000 of gifts and loans –including a Rolex, expensive vacations and shopping sprees, and money for his daughters’ wedding – in exchange for favors from the governor’s office. McDonnell was convicted on public corruption charges, but has appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing not only that these favors weren’t “official actions,” but also that his conduct was protected by the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014).

Those cases held that general concerns about donors merely having “access” to a politician will not justify certain campaign finance restrictions – but Gov. McDonnell stretches these holdings beyond the breaking point, making the stunning argument that Citizens United actually created a constitutional right to lavish politicians with gifts in exchange for official favors and access.

CLC’s friend-of-the-court brief argues that neither of these Supreme Court cases “invented a new free-standing constitutional right to purchase access to officeholders” – not to mention that McDonnell in fact gave Williams more than “mere access” – and interpreting these decisions to create such a “right” would result in “enormous damage to this Court’s longstanding campaign finance precedents.”

Read our friend-of-the-court brief.