Supreme Court leashes prosecutors

In an 8-0 ruling, the US Supreme Court dramatically scaled back the power of federal prosecutors to charge politicians with corruption.

The ruling overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, who had been found guilty of trading “official acts” for $175,000 in goodies from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a businessman seeking support for his tobacco-based nutritional supplement. The goodies included a $20,000 loan, a $6,500 Rolex watch, $15,000 in catering expenses for the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter, and $20,000 in clothing for McDonnell’s wife, including designer dresses and a full-length white leather coat.

In return for the various gifts, prosecutors convinced a jury that McDonnell engaged in official acts on Williams’s behalf, arranging meetings for Williams with state officials, hosting a luncheon for Williams’s company at the governor’s mansion, and plugging the supplement at a meeting where state employees discussed their health plan.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion that McDonnell’s behavior may have crossed a line ethically — but not legally. “There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” Roberts wrote. “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.”

Roberts argued that official acts must be official, involving “a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee.” He added: “Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit [the] definition of ‘official act.'”

The ruling, and the broader message of restraint it delivers to prosecutors, could have an impact locally on ongoing federal investigations of Sen. Brian Joyce of Milton and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, as well as the appeal of John O’Brien, who was convicted of running a rigged hiring system in favor of the politically well-connected at the state Probation Department. Were their actions crimes, or just politics as usual?

Robert Gebelhoff, writing in the Washington Post, said the McDonnell decision properly reins in the power of federal prosecutors. No doubt, Harvey Silverglate would agree.

A Los Angeles Times editorial conceded prosecutors often stretch the law too far, but said Williams, with his $175,000 in gifts, is not the average constituent and McDonnell performed far more than routine constituent services.

The Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos stakes out a middle ground, suggesting the court’s decision doesn’t necessarily tie the hands of prosecutors. He noted the Roberts decision doesn’t require that an official act actually be performed — “it is enough that the official agree to do so.” So, theoretically, a prosecutor could still prove bribery if the official accepted something of value knowing that it was given with the expectation that an official act would be performed.

Few good government types saw a silver lining in the decision. Zephyr Teachout, who has written a book about corruption, calls what Williams and McDonnell did “old school, classic corruption.” She warns that the court is now doing to corruption what it did to campaign finance with the Citizens United decision.

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson took the same view: “The Court, in Citizens United and now in McDonnell, has looked upon the worst, most endemically corrupt aspects of American politics and enshrined them.”

–BRUCE MOHL

 

BEACON HILL

A federal watchdog group blasted state officials for the operation of Bridgewater State Hospital following the suicide last year of a patient there and demanding that the facility be moved from the oversight of the Department of Correction to that of the Department of Mental Health. (Boston Globe)

Gov. Charlie Baker is upping the estimated budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year by $200 million, which means serious cuts in the planned spending plan are in order. (State House News)

House leaders made two last-minute changes to legislation governing non-compete clauses just before tomorrow’s scheduled floor vote on the bill. (Boston Globe)

Baker says he doesn’t support a decision by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission to limit the Nashoba Valley Winery to either a farmer’s manufacturing license or a pouring license. The ruling means that, after 16 years in business, Nashoba can’t continue to both make wines and pour them at its restaurant. (State House News)

State Rep. Garrett Bradley of Hingham, a key deputy to Speaker Robert DeLeo, resigning his House seat but his announcement comes three weeks after the deadline to withdraw his name from the September primary ballot, meaning if no one beats him as a write-in, the district’s Democratic town committees will select a nominee for the general election. (Patriot Ledger)

Attorney General Maura Healey wants information from two Boston nonprofits that were part of questionable real estate deals with a Roxbury family that the Globe has spotlighted for its shady operations. (Boston Globe)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

With Worcester on the move, a Telegram & Gazette editorial offers high praise for City Manager Edward Augustus Jr.

Brockton DPW workers were ordered to take bulldozers, backhoes, and front-end loaders to raze the so-called Tent City, a decades-old encampment of homeless people near the downtown area that has been the source of increased fires and drug use. (The Enterprise)

An Ashland resident has launched a recall petition drive to remove a member of the fractured Board of Health who had temporarily halted permit issuing when she questioned the use of her e-signature on the documents. (MetroWest Daily News)

CASINOS

A Taunton couple has become the face of the anti-casino effort in that city, where the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is building a $1 billion gambling hall. (Boston Globe)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The Supreme Court delivers a big victory for abortion rights, striking down parts of a restrictive  Texas law in the court’s most significant decision on the contentious issue in nearly 25 years. (Boston Globe)

Jeffrey Sachs writes that Brexit is a reflection of the widely felt ills associated with economic globalization. (Boston Globe)

Lowell Sun columnist Peter Lucas dubs US Rep. Katherine Clark the founder of the Congressional Idiot Caucus, which consists of the nine House members and two senators from Massachusetts.

Some conservative Christian pastors have lauded the slaughter of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub, saying the mostly gay victims got what they deserved. (New York Times)

ELECTIONS

Donald Trump and his BFF surrogate Scott Brown ramped up their attacks on Sen. Elizabeth Warren, mocking her claim of Native American heritage and labeling her “racist,” as the buzz grows about her potential nomination as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. (U.S. News & World Report)

Peter Gelzinis says Clinton and Warren are fast becoming Trump’s worst nightmare. (Boston Herald)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Volkswagen has agreed to pay a record $14.7 billion to settle claims against the car manufacturer for falsifying test results of its diesel engine performance. (New York Times)

EDUCATION

Darnell Williams, head of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, says the Walsh administration is too focused on “spin” and not on addressing the real issues that have surfaced in the Boston Latin School imbroglio. (Boston Herald) Joan Vennochi says Walsh, in avoiding taking a clear stand on the leadership crisis at the school, pleased no one. (Boston Globe)

The Globe names three current or former Boston school leaders who could be tapped as interim headmaster Boston Latin. That announcement will be made today, the paper reports.

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

The lawyer for a former Longmeadow gynecologist says he is considering filing charges alleging “vindictive prosecution” by the US attorney’s office, which has charged his client with taking kickbacks from a pharmaceutical company. (Masslive)

TRANSPORTATION

The cost of South Coast Rail balloons by $1 billion, prompting the Baker administration to scope out an alternative. (CommonWealth)

The Boston Carmen’s Union offers a $24 million savings plan, generating most of the savings by cutting the wages of new, incoming workers. (State House News)

The MBTA, with limited memory capacity on its fare machines, is having difficulty loading software for the new fares that launch this Friday. (State House News)

Jim Aloisi laments proposals for soccer stadiums and casinos that cause massive disruptions to a transportation system already groaning under the weight of bad planning. (CommonWealth)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Eversource has removed a controversial trucking plan from its proposed LNG storage facility in Acushnet after local officials and residents protested against the surprise inclusion of the option in a “resource report.” (Standard-Times)

Green Mountain Power in Vermont is selling Tesla home batteries to its customers. (WBUR)

Orleans and Eastham officials will meet to try to settle a boundary dispute over Orleans’ off-road driving permit program that allows four-wheel vehicles on Nauset Spit, a section of land that has edged over into neighboring Eastham, which bans off-road driving, because of shifting sands. (Cape Cod Times)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

OUI hat trick: Officials say former Boston Bruin Ray Bourque registered three times the legal limit when tested for alcohol after he rear-ended a minivan driven by an 18-year-old in Andover. (Boston Herald)

Ipswich is launching its own angel program, taking a cue from the Gloucester initiative that promises addicts care rather than jail. (Salem News)

MEDIA

The New York Times is bracing for big changes this summer. (Politico)

PASSINGS

A death in the family: David Martin, the former head of finance at MassINC and a longtime campaign finance consultant to Democratic elected officials, died over the weekend at age 52. (State House News)

Pat Summitt, the former University of Tennessee coach who put women’s college basketball on the map and became the all-time winningest male or female Division 1 coach, has died. She was 64. (New York Times)