McDonnell gets two-year prison term
Saying “a price must be paid” in a case he described as “tragic from beginning to end,” U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer sentenced former Gov. Bob McDonnell Tuesday to two years in federal prison for his earlier conviction on 11 counts of corruption.
The sentence was much lighter than the range of 10 to 12 years sought by federal prosecutors in conjunction with federal sentencing guidelines. McDonnell is the first Virginia governor ever to be convicted of a felony. In the historic case, a jury found the governor and his wife, Maureen, guilty in Federal District Court in September in connection with more than $177,000 in gifts and loans they received from Virginia businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
The judge’s decision followed a more than four-hour hearing in Richmond, which saw a parade of 11 character witnesses, including former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, extol McDonnell as a decent and honorable man who had done much good for the commonwealth during his long years of public service.
In comments to the judge before his sentencing, McDonnell asked for leniency and the chance to receive a sentence of 6,000 hours of community service instead of prison time. This alternative sentence sought by McDonnell’s legal team included community service with faith-based ministries in Haiti and Bristol, Va.
“I stand before you as a heartbroken and humble man,” he told Spencer with a bowed head. “… Whatever mercy the court can extend, I would ask that you consider granting it first to my wife,” he added. Mrs. McDonnell, who sat with her family during the hearing, is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 20.
After the judge’s pronouncement, some of McDonnell’s family members, wept. As he made his way out of the courtroom, McDonnell hugged and kissed family members and supporters who attended the hearing. Outside the courthouse, McDonnell spoke briefly with the media, thanking Spencer “for the mercy he dispensed to me today. “
He added that he continues to disagree with the jury’s guilty verdict and said his legal defense team planned to file for an appeal by later today or tomorrow. While he said he was “deeply sorry” for some of his actions, “I have never betrayed my sacred oath of office. ‘’
Spencer said McDonnell needs to report to a yet-to-be designated federal prison at 2 p.m. on Feb. 9 to begin serving his sentence. However, one of McDonnell’s lead defense attorneys, Henry Asbill from the law firm Jones Day, said during a news conference outside the courthouse that McDonnell may not have to report to prison if the court approves a motion for him to be free on bond pending his appeal.
Another member of the team, John Brownlee of Holland & Knight, credited Wilder, a Democrat, as one of McDonnell’s’ most effective character witnesses. Wilder, the last to speak, testified to the pressures of the governor’s office. “People are always calling upon you to do things and to fix things, and sometimes you can’t do that …” He credited McDonnell with reaching across the aisle to get things done as governor. Noting that McDonnell was once considered on short lists for higher public office, Wilder said McDonnell’s conviction resulted in the end of his political career. “He’s been punished indelibly forever… There’s no magic wand that can take away the taint to his reputation and what could have been.”
Wilder asked Spencer to look “at the totality of the circumstances and then decide on an appropriate sentence…”
The prosecution team left the courthouse in Richmond in stony silence, refusing to comment on the two-year sentence. Earlier during the hearing, Spencer revised the sentencing guidelines downward from 10 years to a range of six and a half years to eight years. In closing comments, assistant U.S. Attorney Michael S. Dry, the lead prosecutor, asked Spencer to consider a 78-month term. At one point, Dry called the plea for community service over a period of 33 to 41 months “ridiculous” in light of McDonnell’s conviction on 11 counts of corruption, which involved loans of as much of $120,000 and gifts to the first family, including a Rolex watch for McDonnell and a New York shopping spree for the first lady — gifts McDonnell said during his trial he did not know came from Williams.
Williams testified that he showered the first family with financial largess in hopes of gaining support from the governor’s office for a dietary supplement, Anatabloc, his company produced. He cooperated with the prosecution in the case and was granted immunity.
Dry cross-examined Wilder, asking if he would have accepted a Rolex watch while he was governor from someone who wanted to do business with the state. “No, I would have bought my own,” Wilder quipped, in one of the hearing’s lighter moments.
Dry made several references to a sentence by another Federal District Court judge, in the 2011 corruption trial of former Del. Phil Hamilton, R-Newport News. Hamilton was sentenced to nine and half years in prison for bribery and extortion. In that case Hamilton was found guilty of steering $1 million in state money, via a budget amendment, to a new teacher training center at Old Dominion University in exchange for a $40,000-a-year, part-time job as the center's director.
Despite the more than 400 letters sent to the judge and the supportive comments from character witnesses, Dry reminded Spencer that McDonnell had been found guilty on multiple counts by the jury. “He sold the power of his office… He not only accepted gifts, he accepted bribes.” To not sentence McDonnell to the fullest degree “futher erodes the public trust in government officials and that trust is the bedrock of our democratic society.”
In addition to prison time, Spencer said McDonnell would remain on supervised probation for two years following his release. Spencer said he did not assess a fine because McDonnell’s finances do not give him the capacity to pay one. However, he did add a $100 special assessment charge for each of the eleven counts for a total of $1,100.
Asked by reporters after the hearing if the judge’s sentence was too light, U. S. Attorney Dana Boente and FBI Special Agent Adam Lee refused to comment. Sometimes the judge and the prosecution see things differently, they noted. Still, said Lee, “Any prison time for an elected official sends a message.”
Boente credited Spencer with giving ”a good explanation” for his reasoning behind the sentence. The judge said he read all of the letters sent on McDonnell’s behalf and found them “moving and honest” in their support. “The overall theme was that this defendant was a good and decent man who had done a lot of good during his time in the public arena,” Spencer said.
The judge also said he had a “great respect” for those with prior military service and that McDonnell, who served in the U.S. Army and the reserves, would get credit for that. However, he noted that McDonnell’s staff “saw Jonnie Williams for what he was and sounded the alarm,” but the former governor did not heed their concerns.
“While Mrs. McDonnell might have allowed the serpent into the mansion, it was McDonnell who brought him into the family’s financial dealings,” Spencer said.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the day, McDonnell expanded upon previous testimony during his trial as to his state of mind during the family’s entanglement with Williams. “I allowed my life to get out of balance,” McDonnell said in comments during the hearing. “I focused too much on politics, and I neglected my personal responsibilities. I hold myself accountable for all of the actions I took while governor. I know my actions have caused suffering to many.”