Former Virginia Governor Found Guilty of 11 Corruption Charges

In a historic verdict Thursday, a federal jury convicted former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on felony corruption charges. It's the first time a Virginia governor has been found guilty of crimes in office.
by | September 5, 2014 AT 10:50 AM

By Bill Sizemore and Kathy Adams

In a historic verdict Thursday, a federal jury convicted former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on felony corruption charges. It's the first time a Virginia governor has been found guilty of crimes in office.

Bob McDonnell convicted on 11 of 13 counts counts and Maureen McDonnell on nine of 13 counts, mostly centering on their relationship with businessman Jonnie Williams, with whom they conspired to promote his diet supplement business in exchange for more than $177,000 in loans, gifts and luxury vacations.

Maureen McDonnell was also convicted of obstructing the criminal investigation.

The McDonnells were acquitted on secondary charges of making false statements on bank loan papers.

Bob McDonnell appeared stunned as the court clerk read the jury's verdict, count by count. He sobbed, holding his head in his hands, his body shaking. The McDonnells' daughters, sitting just behind the defense table, burst into tears. Maureen McDonnell stared straight ahead, keeping her composure until court adjourned, when she tearfully hugged family and friends.

It has been a precipitous fall for Bob McDonnell, who held elective office for 22 years, much of it as a state delegate from Virginia Beach, and as recently as two years ago was a rising star in national Republican politics, considered by many a potential running mate for 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

The McDonnells will be sentenced Jan. 6 by U.S. District Judge James Spencer. They face the prospect of a decade or more in prison.

Attorneys for the couple said they will appeal the verdict.

"We're very disappointed, but we're not deterred," said Hank Asbill, one of Bob McDonnell's attorneys. "This fight is a long way from over."

The jury deliberated for just over two days in a trial that lasted almost six weeks.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in a statement that the McDonnells "turned public service into a moneymaking enterprise."

"The former governor was elected to serve the people of Virginia, but his corrupt actions instead betrayed them," Caldwell said. "Today's convictions should send a message that corruption in any form, at any level of government, will not be tolerated."

Prosecutors won convictions on nearly every count dealing with the core of the case: the corrupt bargain the McDonnells made with Williams to help promote his tobacco-based supplement Anatabloc in return for off-the-books loans and gifts, including a $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor and $20,000 worth of designer clothes for the first lady.

The former governor, who spent five days on the witness stand in his own defense, acknowledged that he and his wife accepted too much largesse from Williams but insisted he did nothing illegal, arguing that he performed the same kind of routine courtesies for Williams that he did for countless other Virginia businesses.

Maureen McDonnell did not testify. Williams testified under a grant of blanket immunity from prosecution.

"What it looks like is the jury just didn't find the defense very believable on the whole core part of the case," said Matt Kaiser, a Washington attorney and former federal public defender. "They really didn't buy the marriage-is-a-sham defense."

In sometimes emotional testimony, the former governor said that despite putting on a happy face in public, he and his wife had grown apart because of his long work hours and her frequent bouts of uncontrollable anger. The couple's attorneys argued that their marriage was so broken and their communication so strained that they were incapable of joining in a conspiracy together.

The two have been living apart during the trial and seldom acknowledged each other's presence as they came and went from the courthouse.

Now the focus will turn to the couple's sentences. The corruption charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years, but Spencer will more than likely impose a sentence within a range determined by a complicated set of federal guidelines.

Among the variables that go into that calculation is the value of what each party received from the corrupt bargain. Calculating what the McDonnells got is relatively straightforward, but quantifying what Williams got is harder, Kaiser said.

The governor directed several of his subordinates to meet with Williams, who was hoping to initiate clinical trials of his supplement at state medical schools, and hosted a luncheon at the Governor's Mansion at which Williams touted his product and passed out samples. The clinical trials Williams sought never occurred.

How to put a dollar value on those things?

"There's going to be a lot of argument and litigation about that," Kaiser said. "Probably the defense argument is going to be the value of that was exactly zero and the government's argument is probably going to be the value of that is really high.

"If it's really high, we could be looking at a sentence of many, many years. If it's zero, I think we're probably still looking at a sentence that involves prison time -- especially from that judge."

Most federal defendants sentenced to prison go directly into custody upon sentencing.

Deidre Condit, chairwoman of the political science program at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the McDonnell jury's "resounding response" to the corruption charges should be a wake-up call for Virginia politicians.

"It appeared to me to express the wide gap between the political will of this microcosm of the citizenry of Virginia and the political will of the state legislature," Condit said. "This response from the jury says 'We want a high bar for ethics.' "

In contrast, she said, the General Assembly enacted only a tepid, toothless ethics reform package this year in response to the McDonnell scandal. The legislation placed a cap on gifts from lobbyists and government contractors, but it exempted many of the kinds of favors that Williams showered on the McDonnells.

"It's a sad day for the McDonnells, but perhaps a very good day for Virginia politics," Condit said, noting that the former first couple's sentencing will occur just days before the 2015 legislative session begins. "I don't think they can avoid the political impact. I think they're going to have to address reform."

Among Virginia elected leaders, the most full-throated call for reform in the wake of the verdict came in a statement from Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat:

"If there was somehow still any doubt, it should be crystal clear that the people of Virginia deserve real ethics reform that will turn off the spigot of gifts, tickets, and trips that opens the door to abuse and undermines public confidence in our government."

Responses from leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature, however, made no mention of ethics reform.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, said he disagreed not only with the verdict but also with the Justice Department's decision to prosecute the McDonnells in the first place.

"The Commonwealth and the McDonnell family have suffered greatly during this investigation and trial," Norment said in a statement. "Virginia politics will be forever changed from this experience, and I look forward to all of us being able to move on and move forward."

House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Spotsylvania County, called it "a sad day for Virginia" but said he wouldn't second-guess the jury. "I am proud to call Bob McDonnell my friend and I pray for him and his family during this difficult time," Howell said in a statement.

The jury acquitted Maureen McDonnell on three corruption counts involving a $20,000 loan that her husband negotiated with Williams and a round of golf at Williams' exclusive country club, apparently concluding that the first lady had no involvement in them.

But she was convicted of the single charge that applied to her alone: obstructing the criminal investigation once she became aware of it by returning the designer clothes to Williams with a note implying that they were a loan, not a gift.

Both McDonnells were acquitted of charges that they falsified bank loan applications by omitting the loans they got from Williams. The defense introduced evidence that the banks did not require the loans to be disclosed.

Pilot writer Kathy Adams contributed to this report.

(c)2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)