In a stunning move, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer sentenced former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to two years in prison Tuesday, far below the original 10-12 year punishment requested by federal prosecutors.
The nearly five-hour sentencing took a dramatic turn in the proceeding’s final moments, when Spencer said it would be “ridiculous and unfair” to sentence McDonnell to even six years behind bars.
“I believe the governor had good council that went unheeded, while the First Lady allowed the serpent into the Mansion,” Spencer told a packed courtroom. “But the governor continued to do business with [Jonnie Williams].”
Prosecutors said McDonnell accepted $177,000 in gifts and loans from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams, in exchange for privileged access to the governor’s administration.
In a moment of candor, Spencer said he was moved by more than 440 letters sent from as far as Dublin, Ireland, asking for McDonnell to be given a second chance.
Spencer said he read all of them, a task that takes days.
“The overall gist I got from these letters is that he is a good and decent man,” Spencer said. “He deserves credit, and will receive credit for his service to Virginia, as well as his military service.”
McDonnell retired from the Army Reserve in 1997 as a Lieutenant Colonel. He served 21 years posted in Germany and Newport News.
“But with all the grace and mercy I can muster, I cannot cover it all,” Spencer continued. “A price must be paid. Unlike Pontius Pilate, I can't wash my hands of it all. A meaningful sentence must be imposed.”
Gasps swept the courtroom when Spencer imposed a sentence of two years, along with two years’ supervised release.
McDonnell was then instructed report to prison Feb. 9, 2015. Spencer recommended the low-security Petersburg Federal Correctional Complex, the facility found closest to McDonnell’s Glen Allen home.
A motion asking for McDonnell to remain free pending appeal remained undecided Tuesday, with defense council expected to file an appeal early Wednesday.
Drama took hold moments before Spencer addressed the court, when McDonnell stood and asked for mercy to be granted to his wife – before him.
“I ask that whatever mercy you might have, you grant it first to my wife Maureen,” McDonnell said. “I stand before you a heartbroken and humbled man. I can’t fathom any deeper humiliation for me or my family.”
The defense called 11 character witnesses in all, with former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder crossing party and generational lines to vigorously defend McDonnell.
Wilder received loud cheers and applause from the court, twice, during cross examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry. When asked if giving McDonnell special treatment would decay the public trust, Wilder vehemently accused Dry of allowing Williams to escape any punishment.
“When you look at the progenitor of the bribe, the person who actually started everything walks away clean,” Wilder exclaimed. “I think the judge should look at the totality of the situation.”
McDonnell appeared poised but worn, sitting feet from his wife and five children gathered in the court’s front row. Twins Bobby and Sean flanked Mrs. McDonnell, with the former governor giving his wife a peck on the cheek immediately following sentencing.
Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky, McDonnell’s oldest daughter, was in attendance, set to give birth to the former governor’s first grandchild Jan. 19.
The focus now shifts to Maureen McDonnell’s sentencing Feb. 20 on eight criminal counts. All indications project a sentence that will be more lenient than her husband’s punishment.
As for ethical concerns going forward, political observers say there is a deterrence effect that has forever changed Virginia politics.
“There's nobody who can walk into the governor's office now and play fast and loose without being mindful of the entire process that this case has had,” said Dr. Deirdre M. Condit, chair of the political science and international studies departments at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It is incumbent on the House of Delegates and the Governor to really work together to try to find a way to build serious anti-corruption laws in the state of Virginia,” Condit added.
There is currently a proposal within the General Assembly to cap gifts at $100 for all state legislators and Virginia government officials. The 2015 session begins Jan. 14, just over three weeks before McDonnell is scheduled to begin serving time in prison.