Former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell's bid to overturn his corruption conviction got a boost Monday from the Supreme Court, which granted his request to remain out of prison as his lawyers press an appeal.
The court's action suggests the justices think the former Republican governor may have a strong claim.
A jury found McDonnell guilty last year of conspiring to take more than $170,000 in cash and gifts from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting his untested dietary supplement. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
But McDonnell maintained he was wrongly convicted because he did little more than make phone calls and arrange meetings to help promote the product of a donor.
His lawyers argued that such routine dealings between a public official and a constituent are not criminal. They said the governor ultimately made no "official action" to benefit Jonnie Williams, the businessman.
His lawyers are due to file a full petition in the fall asking the court to review the case and throw out the charges. If granted, his case would pose a major test of the federal bribery law.
Under the court's rules, the justices would grant a defendant's appeal to stay out of prison if there were a "reasonable probability" they would vote to review the case and possibly overturn his conviction.
His lawyers accused federal prosecutors of expanding the definition of bribery. "If Gov. McDonnell can be imprisoned for giving special access to a gift giver, any elected official could equally be imprisoned for agreeing to answer a campaign donor's phone call or arrange a meeting for him," they said Thursday in requesting an order to prevent McDonnell from going to prison now.
But prosecutors argued the governor had corruptly used his influence to help promote the dietary supplement with state health officials and top state university researchers. Solicitor Gen. Donald B. Verrilli Jr. had urged the court to turn down McDonnell's request to remain free. He said the ex-governor was properly convicted because he "used the power of his office to urge Virginia officials to resolve government matters favorably to Williams."
Noel Francisco, a Washington lawyer for McDonnell, said he was "deeply gratified the justices have recognized this case raises substantial and important legal questions.... We look forward to filing our petition for certiorari and, ultimately, to vindicating Gov. McDonnell."
A Justice Department spokesman declined to the comment on the court's action.
McDonnell's political fall was spectacular. In 2012, he was a possible vice presidential running mate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But shortly afterward, news stories from Richmond revealed that McDonnell and his wife were deeply in debt, and they had secretly taken money and favors from Williams. Seeking to win state support for his dietary supplement, Williams agreed to pay $15,000 to cover the cost of the catering when McDonnell's daughter was married. The governor also asked for and got a secret $50,000 loan from Williams to pay his real estate debts.
When these gifts were revealed, Williams agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and testified against the governor and his wife, Maureen.