RICHMOND, Va. – Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, once a top Republican prospect for national office, faced sentencing Tuesday for selling the influence of his office to the CEO of a dietary supplements company.
Prosecutors recommended a federal prison term of at least 10 years for McDonnell, who was convicted of 11 public corruption counts, but a judge lowered the sentencing guideline range to about 6 1/2 years to 8 years, saying an “obstruction of justice” enhancement shouldn’t count if McDonnell gave testimony that the jury did not believe.
Defense attorneys asked U.S. District Judge James Spencer to order three years of community service, arguing that the federal investigation that destroyed his career and exposed details of his rocky marriage and shaky finances was punishment enough.
The judge is not bound by the guidelines. He is hearing arguments and is expected to give his decision sometime Tuesday.
McDonnell’s friends and supporters packed the courthouse. Supporters included former NFL standout Bruce Smith and several state lawmakers. McDonnell’s family members – including wife Maureen, also convicted of bribery – were in attendance as well.
More than 400 people have written letters asking the judge to spare McDonnell from prison – with former Democratic Gov. and current U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, relatives and neighbors among them. Several, including two of the McDonnells’ daughters, placed much of the blame with Bob McDonnell’s wife.
Several charities have offered McDonnell volunteer positions, including religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing, which had jobs managing a hunger relief program in Appalachia and another working at an orphanage and fish farm in Haiti. However, it’s unlikely the former governor will avoid prison entirely. If he gets prison time, McDonnell is asking to be released on bond pending appeal.
A jury in September found McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of accepting more than $165,000 in loans and gifts – including a Rolex watch and designer clothing – in exchange for promoting a nutritional supplement marketed as a miracle cure by Star Scientific Inc. The company’s former CEO, Jonnie Williams, testified under immunity as the prosecution’s star witness.
McDonnell testified in his own defense during the six-week trial, acknowledging he accepted Williams’ largesse but claiming he did nothing for him in return other than routine political courtesies.
Maureen McDonnell, who did not testify, will be sentenced Feb. 20 on eight counts.
The case prompted the General Assembly to tighten state ethics laws and some Virginia elected officials have voluntarily limited the value of gifts they will accept.
McDonnell, 60, was once considered a possible running mate for Mitt Romney. He delivered the 2010 Republican response to the State of the Union Address and became chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2011. He was indicted 10 days after leaving the office once held by Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.
At trial, the McDonnells’ defense strategy depended in large part on convincing the jury that their marriage was so strained they could not have conspired to squeeze bribes out of Williams. They arrived at and left the courthouse separately every day and rarely even glanced at each other as they sat separated by lawyers at the defense table.
McDonnell and other witnesses testified about the first lady’s erratic behavior, suggesting she was largely responsible for the cozy relationship that developed between the couple and Williams. They said she was prone to such angry outbursts that the Executive Mansion staff threatened a mass resignation. One acknowledged calling Maureen McDonnell “a nutbag.”
Prosecutors countered the broken marriage defense by showing the jury photos of the McDonnells holding hands as recently as at pretrial hearings. Later, in their sentencing recommendation to Spencer, prosecutors sought to turn the strategy against McDonnell by saying he has blamed others for his own misdeeds.
Defense attorneys also claimed Maureen McDonnell developed a “crush” on Williams, and several witnesses described her relationship with the wealthy vitamin executive as inappropriate and flirtatious. But nobody suggested the relationship was physical, and Williams testified that his dealings with the McDonnells were all business.