RICHMOND, Virginia — Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell made her final written plea to a federal appeals court Thursday, restating her claim that her public corruption convictions were based on an overly broad definition of bribery.
In a brief filed with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, McDonnell's lawyers disputed arguments made in court filings by prosecutors that there is clearly enough evidence to support her convictions. Both sides have now completed their written arguments to the Richmond-based court, which has not yet scheduled a hearing on the former first lady's appeal.
Maureen McDonnell's arguments largely mirror those of her husband, former Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose appeal was heard by a three-judge panel last month.
A jury in September found the McDonnells guilty of doing favors for a wealthy vitamin entrepreneur in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans. Bob McDonnell, once widely considered a possible running mate to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was sentenced in January to two years in prison. His wife was sentenced in February to one year and one day in prison. Both are free on bond.
According to testimony at the McDonnells' six-week trial, the governor arranged meetings with administration officials for former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams, who was seeking state-financed research on his company's signature product, the tobacco-derived anti-inflammatory Anatabloc. The first couple also attended events promoting Anatabloc and hosted a product launch event at the Executive Mansion.
Williams lavished the McDonnells with gifts, including a $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor and about $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories for his wife, as well as low-interest loans to help them pay credit card bills and operating expenses for their money-losing vacation rental properties in Virginia Beach.
At trial, the McDonnells' lawyers tried to convince a jury that the couple's marriage was so broken that they could not have conspired in a bribery scheme. They have pursued a different strategy on appeal, arguing that the favors for Williams were not "official acts" in exchange for bribes but were the type of routine political courtesies extended every day by elected officials at all levels of government, from city halls to the White House.
Maureen McDonnell's lawyers wrote in their latest brief that prosecutors contended that virtually anything the governor did was an "official action" as long as it related to a Virginia business. U.S. District Judge James Spencer took a similarly broad view in his instructions to the jury, they said.
"That unprecedented construction of official acts criminalizes routine political activity, grants prosecutors unbridled discretion in a politically-charged arena, and violates Due Process," they wrote.
They also said that Maureen McDonnell, who is neither a lawyer nor a public official, could not be expected to know that the government might consider her husband's actions illegal when scores of former attorneys general and legal scholars argued in friend-of-the-court briefs that they were not.
In addition, defense lawyers claim U.S. District Judge James Spencer failed to adequately assess whether potential jurors were influenced by extensive news coverage of the case, and that he erred by not granting the McDonnells separate trials.