Nearly a year after federal prosecutors launched a devastating and unprecedented case against Virginia’s 71st governor, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer will sentence former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell Tuesday, a proceeding that will likely stretch into the afternoon.
McDonnell is expected to address the court before his sentence is revealed, delivering his first major public statement and reflections on his Sept. 4 conviction.
The McDonnell defense is prepared to call several character witnesses to testify on the former governor’s behalf, with typically 10 people allowed around 15 minutes each in federal cases.
Family members and close allies within the governor’s inner circle will gather before the 10 a.m. hearing, and if called, will face cross examination by the government.
According to prosecutors with extensive knowledge of the proceedings, if Spencer sentences McDonnell to prison, it is unlikely the former governor will be immediately taken into custody. Instead, he will be able to self-report for several weeks.
McDonnell would be instructed to turn himself in to U.S. Marshals at Richmond’s federal courthouse at a certain date, or report to a designated prison weeks down the road.
McDonnell’s defense team has up to 10 days after sentencing to file an appeal. Government prosecutors are asking Spencer for a sentence between 10 years and one month in prison, to as long as 12 years and seven months behind bars.
The defense has asked Spencer for a sentence of 6,000 hours of rigorous community service over a span of three years. Under those terms, McDonnell would work an average of 6.4 hours per day, assuming one day off each week.
One major question remaining before Tuesday’s proceeding is what, if any, effect will 440 letters from McDonnell supporters have on Spencer’s decision?
After days reading through each letter from family members, a former news anchor, felons, and people who believe McDonnell is the most honorable person they know, three letters from non-family members separate themselves from the rest – and have eluded significant news coverage.
Janet Vestal Kelly, Virginia's former secretary of the commonwealth, writes in an eight-page letter that McDonnell did not know how to handle his wife, and compared his lack of action to behavior seen in a domestic abuse situation.
“I believe that, even after 38 years of marriage, [McDonnell] has a deep-seated inability to adequately know how to handle his wife’s behavior,” Kelly writes. “I would equate this to some type of victim syndrome in domestic violence situations. Please know that I have personally dealt with situations involving domestic violence, and I say that with this seriousness that this opinion deserves. Emotionally abusive instances were common and severe, as the testimony at trial indicated.”
“I love Maureen – albeit imperfectly – and do not blame her for the circumstances,” Kelly continues. “And I am sick that, because of this secret domino that caused many others to fall, they are convicted felons.”
A second letter is taken straight from the headlines in Northern Virginia – involving the case of alleged serial killer Charles Severance.
The letter is from Norman J. Lodato, who graduated from Bishop Ireton High School with McDonnell in 1972. Like a multitude of letters submitted to Spencer, Lodato writes he has known McDonnell for more than 40 years since their school days in Alexandria.
Then, without naming the suspect, the letter takes a chilling turn.
“Earlier this year, tragedy struck in my own life when my wife was murdered in our home in Alexandria,” Lodato writes. “While I received countless calls and emails, Bob was one of the first people to reach out and share his condolences, as well as his fond memories of Ruthanne.”
Ruthanne Lodato played the organ at Bob and Maureen McDonnell’s wedding, and organized a high school reunion two years ago at the Executive Mansion. She is the music teacher who was shot and killed inside her own home, one of three murders allegedly committed by Charles Severance.
“In his own quiet and humble way, [McDonnell] continued to check in on how my daughters and I were doing via calls and texts and came to visit a month later,” Lodato writes. “We prayed and recounted good times we spent together with my wife.”
Then a third letter may provide insight into how Spencer will sentence the former governor.
It comes from a man who Spencer sentenced before, a political operative named Edmund A. Matricardi III.
Matricardi is the former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, indicted on five federal charges of eavesdropping on a Democratic conference call that included then Gov. Mark R. Warner.
“I made a mistake that resulted in the ‘GOP Eavesdropping Scandal,’" Matricardi writes. “I stood before Your Honor to plead guilty on April 1, 2003.”
“I still remember what Your Honor told me on the day I was sentenced. Your Honor said that it was tempting to ‘make an example of me’ and ‘send a message’ to the political class, but Your Honor decided to sentence me as an ‘individual.’ I was punished in a way that made me pay my debt to society but also gave me a second chance to be a better husband and father, better business partner and friend, better citizen and man. I will always be grateful for that second chance.”
Spencer sentenced Matricardi to serve three years' probation and pay a $10,000 fine.
McDonnell is unlikely to walk away as lucky.
Whatever the outcome, the drama will continue through the impending appeal process, and then the sentencing of Maureen McDonnell Feb. 20.