By Kathy Hieatt and Patrick Wilson
After hearing impassioned pleas for leniency, a federal judge on Tuesday sentenced former Gov. Bob McDonnell to two years in prison for public corruption -- considerably less time than federal guidelines advised but not the community service sought by the defendant's legal team.
U.S. District Judge James Spencer said in announcing his decision that he had no doubt McDonnell was a decent man who had done much good. He indicated that McDonnell's past work and his military service prompted a lesser sentence than the possible 6½ to 8 years suggested under federal sentencing guidelines.
But Spencer said he couldn't ignore that a jury found McDonnell guilty in September of 11 felony counts related to accepting bribes from Jonnie Williams Sr., a businessman with a company called Star Scientific who was marketing a dietary supplement.
"A price must be paid, and that is some level of punishment," Spencer said. "Unlike Pontius Pilate, I can't wash my hands of it all. A meaningful sentence must be imposed."
McDonnell, 60, became the first Virginia governor to receive a jail sentence for illegal acts while in office. He was ordered by Spencer to begin serving his sentence on Feb. 9.
McDonnell's wife, Maureen, who attended Tuesday's hearing, is to be sentenced Feb. 20 for eight felony counts related to the same corruption case. It's not clear what sentencing guidelines she faces.
There is no parole in the federal system.
A jury found the couple guilty of charges related to their receiving more than $177,000 in loans, gifts and luxury vacations from Williams in exchange for promoting his business from the Governor's Mansion. Williams, who was granted immunity from criminal charges, was a key prosecution witness during the trial.
Shortly before sentencing, McDonnell apologized as he stood at a courtroom lectern.
"I stand before you as a heartbroken and humbled man," he said. "I hold myself fully accountable for all the words, all the actions that I took as the governor of Virginia."
He asked the judge to show mercy on his wife.
"I ask that you consider granting it first to my wife, Maureen," he said.
After the hearing, while talking with reporters, McDonnell thanked Spencer for the lesser sentence but said he still disagrees with the verdict and his attorneys will file an appeal no later than today.
"I am a fallen human being. ... I always tried to put the best interests of the people first as governor, but I have failed at times, and some of the judgments that I have made during the course of my governorship have hurt myself, my family and my beloved people of Virginia, and for that I am deeply, deeply sorry," he said. "But I would also say to the great people of Virginia that I have never, ever betrayed my sacred oath of office in any way while I served as the governor."
Defense attorney Hank Asbill said the immediate goal is to prevent McDonnell from having to report to prison. His attorneys have filed a motion asking that he be allowed to remain on bond pending his appeal. It may take until Feb. 1 to get a ruling, Asbill said.
If McDonnell goes to prison, defense attorneys have asked that he be sent to the federal prison complex in Petersburg.
U.S. Attorney Dana Boente did not comment on the sentence but issued a statement saying McDonnell "violated the public's trust and tarnished the highest office in state government.
"This investigation, prosecution and sentence will help restore and maintain the high integrity of the governor's office, while affirming our commitment to prosecuting public officials who commit crimes," Boente said.
When McDonnell arrived at court with his daughters for the 10 a.m. hearing, he faced a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count, but federal probation guidelines recommended about 10 to 12½ years.
Early in the daylong hearing, Spencer reduced the advisory guidelines to between 6½ and 8 years after hearing arguments from prosecutors and defense lawyers. However, he was not required to follow the guidelines.
McDonnell's attorneys called about a dozen character witnesses, including his sister; Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell; friend and former state Del. Terrie Suit; and former Gov. Doug Wilder. They described McDonnell as a kind man they'd never known even to curse.
"I think people would describe Bob as a Boy Scout," said Howell, who said the two formed a Bible study together 18 years ago when McDonnell was a state legislator. Howell said the former governor "recognizes that there were perhaps some things that he should not have done."
Gary Nelson, a retired colonel who supervised McDonnell in the U.S. Army Reserve for six years, told the judge that McDonnell was driven by compassion and his faith.
"He never once wanted power or fame or fortune," Nelson said. "He just wanted to help people."
Other witnesses described McDonnell's desire to make it easier for felons to have their rights restored.
McDonnell was an assistant prosecutor in Virginia Beach before serving in the General Assembly from 1992 to 2005. He was elected attorney general in 2005 and elected Virginia's 71st governor in 2009.
He and his wife were indicted in January 2014, shortly after he left office.
McDonnell's sister, Nancy McDonnell Naisawald, a kindergarten teacher who lives in Lynchburg, testified that her brother is the "heart and soul" of the family.
"My family is heartbroken. Devastated. Shocked. Disbelief," she said. "We love Bob. We believe in Bob."
Wilder drew applause during his testimony, including when he noted that Williams was granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation.
Wilder praised McDonnell for his willingness to help others and for his military service but also noted that the criminal conviction has damaged his life.
"He'd be on the short list for president of this country" if not for the case, Wilder said. "There's no magic wand that can be waved to take away that taint. He's been stigmatized already. He's been hurt and wounded."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry cross-examined Wilder about whether he would have accepted a Rolex as governor. Among the gifts to the McDonnells from Williams that was cited by prosecutors was a luxury watch.
"I usually bought my own," Wilder replied, drawing laughter. He added, "You'd be surprised what goes on that you don't know about."
Dry asked, "So paying for a meeting -- that would be wrong?"
"I would not permit it," Wilder said.
In his closing argument, defense attorney Asbill read excerpts from some of the hundreds of support letters filed with the court, saying later he nearly cried while doing so. Among the proposals offered by McDonnell's supporters was that he be assigned unpaid service for Virginia Beach-based Operation Blessing International in Bristol or overseas in Haiti.
But Dry, as he was at the trial, was tough.
McDonnell "didn't just accept gifts. He accepted bribes," Dry told the judge. "The defendant has shown no true remorse in this case for his crimes. He keeps saying these were mistakes in judgment."
In recognition of McDonnell's public service, Dry asked the judge to sentence him to 6½ years, the low end of the revised guidelines.
He also compared the case to that of Phil Hamilton, the former Newport News delegate sentenced in 2011 to 9½ years in prison for public corruption.
Political analyst Bob Holsworth said Spencer gave McDonnell's supporters what they asked for: "justice tempered by mercy," first by lowering the sentencing guidelines and then by giving the former governor a fraction of the minimum prison time recommended.
He said Spencer showed a clear disdain for the defense offered by McDonnell's attorneys at trial, especially placing blame on Maureen McDonnell.
But the judge seemed to recognize that McDonnell was not an inherently corrupt man, but "a good person who did a bad thing," Holsworth said.
"At the end of the day, I think that Spencer was moved," he said.
(c)2015 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)