RICHMOND, Va. — Former Gov. Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison and two years of probation on Tuesday for his eleven convictions of public corruption.
“While the wife may have let the serpent into the mansion, the governor let him into his business affairs,” Judge James Spencer told a packed courtroom filled with family, friends, and reporters after a five-hour long hearing. “A meaningful sentence must be imposed.”
Still, the sentence is significantly lower than what the state’s probation office suggested and what the government requested.
The probation office had suggested that McDonnell’s crimes merited 10 to 12 years in prison. Earlier in the day, the judge rejected the government’s suggestion that McDonnell’s defense and insistence of his own innocence could be considered an obstruction of justice, thus docking that sentencing suggestion by two years. Spencer also said the government was likely overstating the magnitude of the gifts, saying it most likely totaled less the estimated $177,000. That shaved off another two years from the recommended sentence and indicated that the judge was considering a sentence of between six to eight years.
But in the final sentencing, Spencer said he planned to exert his discretion to reject the probation office's recommendation. To put McDonnell in jail for six to eight years "would be unfair and ridiculous under these facts,” he said.
Spencer said that, when determining the sentence, he took into consideration the hundreds of letters the governor received on his behalf (dozens of which were read aloud during the sentencing hearing), as well as McDonnell's military service and his lengthy history of public service. “He is a good and decent man and I have no reason to doubt this,” he said. “Why would [he] take these kind of chances, I do not know.”
The governor will report to a federal penitentiary no later than 2 p.m. on Feb. 9, 2015. He will pay a fine of $1100 — $100 for each conviction — the judge said, after adding that the family really didn’t have any money to pay a larger fine.
“This case has been tragic from beginning to end,” Spencer said, describing how the defense had tried to point fingers at everyone but the governor. Those who were blamed ranged from the Virginia state police to the governor’s own wife, Maureen McDonnell.
The defense painted her as emotionally unstable and conniving. Even in the former governor’s own statement, he credited his failures in part to “allowing my wife to get out of balance” — though he said he held himself “fully accountable” in the end.
Outside the courthouse, the former governor spoke to the press briefly, saying he was "deeply, deeply sorry” but swearing again that he “never, ever betrayed my sacred oath of office.”
Though an appeal is expected, the sentencing largely concludes one of the most lurid political soap operas in Virginia’s history. It literally began with some bad shrimp — Maureen McDonnell apparently texted an aide claiming that the couple's chef was trying to ruin Christmas by serving them spoiled seafood. The McDonnells had also allegedly accused the chef of stealing food. Eventually fed up with the treatment, he tipped off federal investigators about the relationship between the governor, his family, and executive Jonnie Williams, who plied the family with lavish gifts. Williams was then-CEO of Star Scientific, Inc., a supplement maker that has since changed its name. The smooth-talking executive revealed that he had paid for one of the McDonnell’s daughter’s weddings, shopping sprees for Maureen, a Rolex and UVA golf clubs for McDonnell, and loans. Gifts Williams gave to the McDonnell’s totaled $177,000 by the government’s estimation, and the McDonnell’s returned the favor by promoting and favoring the executive and his supplements, which were not FDA approved.
Williams accepted a plea deal during the investigation and was given complete immunity for his testimony against the McDonnells. A witness for the defense, Douglas Wilder, who is a friend of McDonnell and a former Democratic governor himself, argued poignantly in favor of the governor and criticized the prosecution for allowing Williams to “walk away clear.” The claim earned applause from the courtroom and overflow room.
Before the lurid scandal came to light, the GOP considered McDonnell a rising star. Just a month into his first term as governor — a scant five years ago — he delivered the Republican Party’s response to the president’s State of the Union. Two years later, he was short-listed to be former Gov. Mitt Romney’s vice president. Fast forward a little bit to 2014, with McDonnell was under investigation and his party's chosen successor Ken Cuccinelli struggling, Virginia voters elected Democrats to every executive office at the state level.
That loss – that punishment – was part of his penance, the defense argued.
“He wouldn’t just be on the short list for vice president. He’d be on the short list for president, no question, had he not run into this difficulty,” Wilder said in his testimony. “If Bob McDonnell was to be given 50 years, it would not be more punishment.”