Brownlee Served as Gov. McDonnell’s Trial Counsel in Conviction Overturned By Supreme Court

John Brownlee

John Brownlee

On June 27, 2016, former governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell  won a decisive victory in the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices, in a unanimous decision, rejected the government’s allegations that Gov. McDonnell violated federal bribery laws and vacated all of his convictions for alleged public corruption. The case has been remanded to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. NAFUSA member John Brownlee led the Holland & Knight Team and served as his counsel for over 3 years, working closely with co-counsel, Jones Day.

Beginning in July 2014, Brownlee served as trial counsel as Holland & Knight defended Gov. McDonnell in a nearly two-month jury trial in federal district court in Richmond, Va.  At trial, Holland & Knight successfully defended Gov. McDonnell against charges of bank fraud and crafted the trial record that ultimately allowed for reversal. At the trial’s conclusion, Holland & Knight also argued that the district court’s proposed instruction to the jury on the definition of “official acts”—a definition that encompassed virtually any activity by a public official concerning any subject—was too broad; instead, Holland & Knight argued the court should instruct the jury that “merely arranging a meeting, attending an event, hosting a reception, or making a speech are not, standing alone, ‘official acts.'” The District Court declined to give Holland & Knight’s requested in­struction, and the jury convicted on the public corruption counts.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions based on that same definition of “official acts.” Gov. McDonnell then requested the U.S. Supreme Court to allow him to remain free on bail pending review of his case. The Supreme Court granted that request—the first of its kind in over 20 years—and on January 15, 2016, granted Gov. McDonnell’s petition for certiorari, indicating that the Court would review the definition of “official acts” as used in the federal corruption laws.

Before the Supreme Court, attorneys for Gov. McDonnell successfully argued that the government’s definition of  “official acts” was too broad. The justices unanimously rejected the government’s definition and adopted a narrowed interpretation of the term “official acts.”  Importantly, the Supreme Court specifically held that “[s]etting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so)—without more— does not fit th[e] definition of an official act,” which is precisely what Holland & Knight had argued earlier. The Supreme Court vacated all of Gov. McDonnell’s convictions and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit for further review.

The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court—and its rejection of the government’s understanding of the law and theory of prosecution—will have a tremendous impact on prosecutors and public officials for years to come.

McDonnell v. United States, No. 15-474 slip op. (June 27, 2016). Read the U.S. Supreme Court opinion.