Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was sentenced Tuesday to two years in prison on public corruption charges, a downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines and a considerably lighter term than the decade in prison prosecutors had sought.
The sentencing capped a stunning downfall for McDonnell, who just a few years ago was chairman of the Republican Governors Association and was frequently mentioned as a possible running mate for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“I’ve made mistakes in my life,” McDonnell said after the sentencing, adding that he 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 he “never, ever” betrayed his sacred oath of office in any way and pledged an appeal. McDonnell is to report to prison by Feb. 9.
Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said the sentencing marked an “important day” for Virginia.
“It’s important for the public to have confidence that when someone receives payments, when someone receives gifts in exchange for public actions, those are bribes, and it’ll be pursued,” Mr. Boente said.
The former governor has maintained since before being charged that he did nothing wrong, that he was unaware of the full extent of the gifts to his family and that he understood them to be motivated by friendship.
McDonnell was convicted in September on 11 counts tied to a public corruption indictment handed up last January, shortly after he left office as Virginia’s 71st governor. The indictment charged him with accepting more than $150,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for helping the man promote his company.
The government argued that McDonnell was in denial about his guilt and was attempting to blame others for his actions.
“I’d rather not comment on the sentence itself, but I would like to say that any prison time for an elected official is punishment, and I think that it does send an important message,” said Adam Lee, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Richmond field office.
McDonnell reportedly rejected a plea deal that would have averted the six-week trial last year and spared prosecution of his wife, Maureen, who was found guilty of eight charges for her role in the conspiracy. But the deal, reported last year by The Washington Post, would have required him to plead to one felony fraud charge unrelated to public corruption.
“He was convinced that there was little chance that he would be convicted,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “He just completely miscalculated, as did his lawyers.”
Although defense attorneys argued that the former governor should serve only 6,000 hours of community service, such a sentence appeared unlikely. The rejected deal seemed as if it would haunt McDonnell after sentencing guidelines in connection with his conviction called for more than 10 years in prison.
“If you can be lucky as you’re being sentenced to prison, then Bob McDonnell was lucky,” Mr. Sabato said.
Maureen McDonnell, who was in the courtroom Tuesday, is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer, stern and dispassionate in his handling of the trial, noted the outpouring of public support for McDonnell on Tuesday from people including former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who spoke on the former governor’s behalf. The judge characterized McDonnell as a “good and decent man who has done a lot of good in the public area.”
“It breaks my heart, but I have a duty I can’t avoid,” Judge Spencer said.
After reducing the sentencing range to about 6½ to eight years in prison — saying an “obstruction of justice” enhancement shouldn’t count toward the term — Judge Spencer delivered a sentence well below the guidelines.
Jeffrey Bellin, an associate professor at William & Mary Law School, said federal judges typically follow federal guidelines and the degree of departure in the case was “particularly notable.”
“The ex-governor also has significant legal issues for appeal, including whether federal law prohibits exchanging ‘access’ for money,” Mr. Bellin said. “While it may seem clear that such exchanges should be unlawful, the legal precedent in this case could be applied to campaign contributions, and that may trouble an appeals court.”
McDonnell is the first Virginia governor, and the 12th nationally, convicted of corruption, federal officials said. Others include Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, who is serving 14 years for a scheme to sell President Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat; Edwin Edwards of Louisiana, who was sentenced to 10 years for extorting money from casino license applicants; and Arch Moore of West Virginia, who got nearly six years for extorting money from a coal operator and other offenses. Some have escaped jail time altogether.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.