Back when his name was floated in presidential election circles, Bob McDonnell kept a room full of evangelical voters riveted as he told the story of a trip he and a friend took to a historical tombstone with the inscription: “Here lies a great politician, and an honest man.”
“How did they get two men in that tiny gravesite?” a grinning McDonnell quoted his friend as asking. The room burst into laughter.
Less than three years later, a disgraced McDonnell stood crying Thursday after a jury in Richmond concluded that he was neither a great politician nor a good man, but rather a felon who abused the office of Virginia governor for personal enrichment.
The verdict, after a five-week trial, completed the downfall of a once-rising Republican star with a telegenic charm whose apparent struggles with a troubled marriage and indebtedness led him toward a path of corruption. Now he and his wife, Maureen, could face decades in prison.
The former governor, his head in his hands, wept openly with each succeeding finding of guilt. He was ashen as he was mobbed by TV cameras before climbing into a waiting blue Mercedes.
“All I can say is that my trust remains in the Lord,” he said quietly.
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There was little open gloating from political adversaries upon the guilty verdicts on all 11 charges of corruption and conspiracy in connection with accepting more than $170,000 in gifts and loans in exchange for helping a wealthy businessman peddle his products — a nod perhaps to the historic nature of the guilty verdict in a state that prides itself on political geniality.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a sober reaction, forgoing any hint of partisanship.
“I am deeply saddened by the events of the trial that ended in today’s verdict, and the impact it has had on our commonwealth’s reputation for honesty and clean government,” the Democratic governor said.
Others highlighted the good times and his standing just several years ago as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a leading national figure for the party.
“Gov. McDonnell served Virginia with distinction, leading the commonwealth through challenging times while amassing an impressive record of accomplishments that will endure long beyond his four-year term,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City County Republican. “He distinguished himself as a productive and prolific member of the General Assembly and an accomplished attorney general. Ultimately, the ordeal of this trial should not diminish that record.”
Indeed, longtime political observer and former Virginia Commonwealth University professor Bob Holsworth said it was important to remember that McDonnell’s public approval ratings were in the upper echelon of governors across the nation during his single four-year term that ended in January, just days before the 14-count indictment was handed up.
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“He was considered as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney, and here we are two years later, looking at the first governor who now faces extended jail time,” said Mr. Holsworth, who observed much of the trial from inside the federal courthouse in Richmond.
The charges were the outgrowth of what initially appeared to be an insignificant investigation into a former executive mansion chef, who was fired in early 2012 after he was accused of stealing food from the mansion kitchen. The chef, Todd Schneider, countered by saying he was told to take food as payment for catering events. His counteraccusation exposed the McDonnells’ relationship with Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie R. Williams.
Mr. Holsworth pointed out that it was McDonnell’s judgment — coupled with his steadfast insistence that he did nothing wrong — that led him to reject an apparent deal that would have exonerated his wife and left him with a single guilty plea to a felony count of falsifying a bank document.
In the end, jurors cleared the McDonnells of those charges. Maureen McDonnell was found guilty of eight out of 11 corruption charges and one charge of obstruction of justice. Sentencing is set for Jan. 6, and McDonnell’s attorney pledged an appeal.
“This fight is far from over,” said Henry Asbill, who called the verdict disappointing.
The defense team’s strategy of portraying the McDonnells’ marriage as so broken that it would have been impossible for a conspiracy to occur necessarily required his children and former staffers to reveal intimate details about their marriage and finances. The former Army officer, prosecutor and popular governor testified that he does not readily discuss those subjects with anybody.
Maureen McDonnell was a “nut bag,” a former staffer said. She told Mr. Romney’s wife, Ann, that the tobacco-based diet supplement Anatabloc could help her with her multiple sclerosis. McDonnell wrote of a fiery anger in her that he would avoid by purposely working late sometimes.
“When we look at the defense strategy, it was one that suggested if the McDonnells publicly humiliated themselves in some fashion by talking about how their marriage was dysfunctional, by talking about how their children didn’t communicate with their father about $10,000 wedding gifts, that somehow the jury would believe that, and ultimately what happened is that the jury rejected the essence of the defense arguments,” Mr. Holsworth told WRC-TV.
From the start, McDonnells’ defense team contended that the entire case rested on the premise that the federal government was engaging in an “extralegal” interpretation of the law and that meetings with state officials or events at the Executive Mansion for Mr. Williams could hardly constitute a sufficient “quo” in exchange for the “quid” the McDonnells received.
“I still have problems with the federal interpretation of an official act,” said Tony Troy, a former Democratic state attorney general who conducted an investigation that found neither Williams nor his company received any state money.
A public distaste for politics in general also contributed, Mr. Troy said.
“There is a jaundiced view that impacts the layperson,” he said. “Because of a lot of the partisan issues, a lot of the fighting that goes on, the normal person believes the government is only open and accessible to people with money, and that’s not true.”
⦁ John Solomon and Andrea Noble contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.