McDonnell verdict jolts Virginia politicians, historians and ordinary Richmond residents

The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman and Matt Zapotosky break down the trial of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell and his wife. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

“Guilty,” the jury said over and over again. Eleven times for the former governor, nine for his wife. And with every “guilty” came loud gasps in the seventh-floor courtroom. Then tears. Then heaving sobs.

That was just the start. News of the historic conviction of Robert F. McDonnell — the first ever for a Virginia governor — and his wife, Maureen, reverberated far beyond the courtroom, shaking a state capital that takes enormous pride in its place in American history and reputation for clean government.

The verdict came just blocks from what McDonnell and nearly everyone else here reverently call “Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol.” The dazzlingly white building is not just a place where state laws are made, but also where politicians purport to act in a manner befitting a “Virginia Gentleman.”

The conviction of Virginia’s 71st governor jolted politicians, historians and ordinary Richmonders alike, leading some to the startling conclusion that Virginia’s political leaders might be no better than the rest. Here in what’s called the “Mother of Presidents,” people shuddered to think that a favorite son who’d had his eye on the White House might be headed to prison instead.

The conviction put an exclamation point on the tawdry details of a trial that seemed to many to be beneath not just McDonnell but Virginia itself.

“I think Jefferson would be appalled that in his own commonwealth, this guy could be gifted a Ferrari [ride]. It’s so Illinois or Louisiana,” said Clay Jenkinson, a renowned humanities scholar and expert on Thomas Jefferson who hosts a radio show called “The Thomas Jefferson Hour.”

The trial of a man who until January governed a state of 8 million had so captivated Richmond that some residents flocked to the courthouse when news broke that the jury had reached a verdict. Leroy Robinson, a chef at the city’s NASCAR track, said he jumped in his Lexus when he heard the verdict was in. He drove four miles to the courthouse and waited on a sidewalk nearly covered with TV camera tripods to hear what would become of a governor he had greatly admired.

“I was a supporter of the governor because of what he did for convicted felons,” Robinson said, referring to McDonnell’s push to restore voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences.

Robinson found it hard to absorb the news that McDonnell himself had just joined those ranks. It is something he would never have expected of the conservative Republican — or any leader of the commonwealth.

“Not in the state of Virginia, no,” he said.

From federal prosecutors who put McDonnell on trial to the top Republican in Richmond who counts McDonnell as a dear friend, reaction to the verdict touched on its effect on the state.

“This is a sad day for Virginia,” said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). He added, “I am proud to call Bob McDonnell my friend, and I pray for him and his family during this difficult time.”

Verdicts of individual counts from the McDonnell trial.

Said U.S. Attorney Dana Boente: “This was a just difficult and disappointing day for the commonwealth and its citizens. Public service frequently requires sacrifice and almost always requires financial sacrifice. When public officials turn to financial gain in exchange for official acts, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.”

The sadness extended to friends and fellow politicians, who one by one released statements offering prayers for the McDonnells.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) sounded dejected and surprised by the verdict.

“I’ve never had a friend of mine get busted for a crime,” Albo said. “I can honestly tell you that guy doesn’t have a dishonest bone in his body. I would put him in my will to take care of my kid. That’s how highly I think of him. I honestly don’t think he thought he was doing anything illegal.”

Roger McIntyre, a construction worker helping to build an office tower near the courthouse, was born in Maryland, which has had some spectacular political corruption cases. Former vice president and governor Spiro T. Agnew (R) was felled by a bribery case. And former governor Marvin Mandel (D) went to prison during his term on a mail fraud and racketeering conviction that was later overturned.

McIntyre thought he’d left that sort of scandal behind when he moved to Virginia 25 years ago. But he took some pride in the fact that his state had convicted a man in such a high position.

“Virginia rocks,” he said. “Normally a guy like that gets off.”

Virginia’s reputation as a clean-government state might not be entirely well founded. When Indiana University researchers set out to determine which states were the most corrupt, the Old Dominion came in 34th out of 50.

The rankings were based on the number of federal, state and local public officials who had been convicted of corruption between 1976 and 2008, with the results adjusted for the population and by the relative size of state government employment, said John L. Mikesell, the study’s co-author and a professor at Indiana University’s school of public and environmental affairs.

The results, based on Justice Department data, do not give greater weight to the conviction of higher-level officials. That might account for why Virginia, which has never before had a governor charged with a crime, has thought of itself as a clean state — because lower-profile corruption has not registered with the public.

Only one of McDonnell’s prede­cessors was embroiled in a significant scandal, but that came to light after he was out of the governor’s mansion. In the early 1990s, then-U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) was forced to admit “peccadilloes” committed while he was governor from 1982 to 1986: associating with young women and attending parties where drugs may have been used. Robb also was investigated by a grand jury looking into illegal wire tapping, but he was never charged. He was reelected to the Senate in 1994, defeating Iran-contra figure Oliver North (R).

John Richmond, 44, a public school math teacher, was riding his bike by the Capitol not long after the verdict was announced. He said he was less than shocked.

“These guys, they’re just as corrupt as people in any other state are. It’s just the corruption is legal,” he said, referring to ethics laws that, before the McDonnell trial, allowed officeholders to accept unlimited personal gifts as long as any worth more than $50 were disclosed.

Kevin McGowan was sweeping outside the Capitol, where he is a maintenance worker. His main duty is to polish the marble floors every night so they always shine.

He takes pride in working at the historic building, where he occasionally ran into McDonnell. He was surprised by the verdict, but he’s never been under any illusion that any of the state’s leaders lived up to their squeaky-clean images, even going back to the Founding Fathers.

“Who’s to say Thomas Jefferson was always on the up and up?” he said.

Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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