The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday vacated the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell with a ruling likely to reverberate through other high-profile corruption cases, including those against former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.)
Within minutes of the unanimous opinion's release, lawyers for Fattah - who was convicted last week on federal charges of racketeering, bribery, and fraud, and then resigned from Congress - were scouring the decision, which narrowed the scope of a law that bars public officials from taking gifts in exchange for official actions.
Even before Monday's ruling, one of Fattah's codefendants, wealthy fund-raiser and former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Herbert Vederman - who was found guilty of a bribery scheme that bears striking similarities to the McDonnell case - had hired the former governor's lawyer to handle his appeal.
Fattah and Vederman should not hold out too much hope of walking free after being convicted in a case that also included the then-congressman's stealing money to pay off his debts, said Adam C. Bonin, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in legal compliance for politicians.
Still, he said, "this gives public officials a lot of necessary guidance as to what they can and can't do."
In tossing McDonnell's conviction, the justices held that federal bribery laws do not cover routine courtesies like setting up meetings, hosting events, or making calls on behalf of constituents.
"There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that," Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote for the court, describing gifts McDonnell received from a wealthy supporter. "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."
The court's ruling Monday will make it more difficult for federal prosecutors to pursue bribery cases without an explicit quid pro quo, said Thomas A. Bergstrom, a white-collar defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.
"It's certainly going to change the mentality of prosecutors across the country in terms of what they need to do to prove these cases in the future," he said. "I think [the court's] message was loud and clear: Rein these cases in."
Lawyers for Menendez, who faces trial in New Jersey on bribery charges, did not return calls for comment Monday. They have made arguments similar to those by McDonnell's lawyers about the senator's relationship to one of his wealthy donors.
McDonnell, a Republican, was charged with using his office to help promote a dietary supplement backed by Star Scientific Inc., whose CEO, Jonnie R. Williams, was a wealthy businessman and supporter. The governor asked subordinates to push state universities to do research studies on Williams' product, and McDonnell's wife hosted a launch party for the business at the governor's mansion.
In exchange, the Justice Department said, Williams showered the McDonnells with more than $165,000 in gifts - including trips on a private plane, designer clothes, a Rolex, and payments toward a wedding reception for the governor's daughter.
McDonnell's lawyers maintained that despite the gifts, he took no official action to benefit Williams or urged any state official to do so. McDonnell claimed that he merely helped a constituent gain access to key government officials.
"This case marks the first time in our history that a public official has been convicted of corruption despite never agreeing to put a thumb on the scales of any government decision," Noel J. Francisco, lawyer for McDonnell, argued in his brief to the court. He said the government's position put "every federal, state, and local official nationwide in its prosecutorial crosshairs."
Lawyers for Fattah and Vederman see similarities in the cases involving their clients.
As prosecutors told it at trial, Vederman hoped to buy Fattah's support for his dream of landing an appointment from the Obama White House to become an ambassador.
To that end, the jury found, Vederman made cash payments to Fattah's children, paid college tuition for Fattah's South African au pair, and gave $18,000 intended to help the congressman close on a vacation home in the Poconos.
Justice Department lawyer Eric L. Gibson, in his closing arguments last week, decried the "steady stream of gifts" and said Vederman "bought himself a congressman."
Defense lawyers described the gifts as nothing more sinister than evidence of friendship. Fattah pushed Vederman as a candidate for an ambassadorship, they said, because he believed him to be qualified for it.
Still, the facts in the case against Fattah and Vederman go beyond those in McDonnell's case.
Fattah also hired Vederman's girlfriend in 2012 for a make-work position in his West Philadelphia office - a job that prosecutors argue was an official act.
Also, Vederman and Fattah were convicted of bank fraud for their roles in a scheme to cover up what authorities described as an $18,000 bribe with the sham sale of a Porsche owned by the congressman's wife, former NBC10 news anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah.
Lawyers for Fattah and Vederman have until July 21 to file motions challenging the verdict.
After the McDonnell opinion, Robert Welsh, who handled Vederman's defense at trial, said he was optimistic.
"I think it's a very significant development," he said. "The court clearly has cut back on the coverage of the statutes in question. We will be looking at that as we move forward."
The good-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington thought otherwise.
"The Supreme Court essentially just told elected officials that they are free to sell access to their offices to the highest bidder," the group said in a statement. "If you want the government to listen to you, you had better be prepared to pay up."