The verdicts Thursday in federal court in Richmond expose former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, to decades in prison and fines in the millions if maximum terms are stacked atop each other.
But prison terms that lengthy, while possible, seemed unlikely to several experienced trial lawyers who have followed the McDonnell case and noted that maximum terms are not common in white-collar convictions.
Sentencing is set for Jan. 6 on the corruption convictions; lawyers for both McDonnells have said they will appeal. The McDonnells were convicted of corruption by granting favors to an executive of a dietary supplement company trying to burnish his business with access to the governor, personal endorsements and potential research studies at state universities.
The former first lady was also convicted of trying to obstruct the investigation by returning designer clothes to the executive years after she had received them to make it appear she never meant to keep them.
The convictions ended the drama of a bruising five-week trial that exposed embarrassing details about the McDonnells’ marriage and their finances.
But the high-profile humiliation isn’t over. The McDonnells remain free until their sentencing — affording them one more family holiday season together and, perhaps, a glimpse of their first grandchild, due in January. However, the McDonnells lived apart during the trial — he with the family priest and she in their suburban Richmond home. After the verdict, they left the courthouse separately.
The legal battles will continue as they marshal their best arguments for lighter sentences and move toward appeals. Between now and sentencing, they will be subject to deep investigation by probation officers who will prepare a report to guide U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer in setting prison terms.
Prosecutors and defense teams are expected to weigh in, spotlighting either the McDonnells’ flaws to drive prison time higher or their virtues to keep it low.
Robert McDonnell, a lawyer, also faces the summary suspension of his license by the Virginia State Bar once it receives written confirmation of his felony conviction from a court.
Less clear is the future of his relationship with Liberty University. In April, the evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., announced that McDonnell had joined its teaching staff as a distinguished visiting professor at the Helms School of Government. Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. said late Thursday that McDonnell had not been scheduled to teach in the fall even before the verdict came in.
The former governor was convicted of 11 charges and his wife of nine, each of which carries a maximum 20-year prison term and fines, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which prosecuted the case. The provisions do not carry mandatory consecutive terms of imprisonment.
The verdict came nine months after McDonnell rejected a plea deal on a lone fraud charge that would have spared him a trial and avoided charges for his wife, according to a previous report in The Washington Post.
Still unclear is whether McDonnell will remain eligible for his state pension. A Virginia law passed three years ago strips state employees of their pensions if they are convicted of a felony related to on-the-job conduct.
Several defense lawyers and former prosecutors who followed the trial pointed to what they said was a probable point of appeal: the hotly argued definition jurors received of what constituted the “official action” the McDonnells traded for Williams’s largesse.
“Defining an official act to be broad enough to include setting up meetings likely sealed the verdict,” said Jacob Frenkel, a criminal defense lawyer in Maryland and former federal prosecutor.
Instructions over how to sort through corruption charges are a flashpoint in a broader legal debate about prosecuting corruption and dishonesty among politicians or corporate chiefs accused of depriving the public or a company of the “intangible right of honest services.”
The statute came under scrutiny in a 2010 Supreme Court decision in a case involving Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former chief executive officer of Enron, who was convicted on multiple charges after lying about the energy company’s finances. Enron’s subsequent collapse cost 5,000 jobs and $1 billion in pension funds. One charge against Skilling used the honest-services law to support a conspiracy count.
The court decided that prosecutors had stretched the statute too far but that it could be saved by limiting its use to cases involving bribes or kickbacks.
Several criminal defense lawyers predicted that, despite the possibility of 20 years imprisonment on each count, a sentence of that magnitude is highly unlikely. One of the largest sentences ever handed to a politician convicted of corruption befell William J. Jefferson, a former Democratic congressman from Louisiana who was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison and began serving his term May 2012 at a federal prison in Texas.
“The fact that those are the maximum sentences [is] going to mean nothing,” said Nina J. Ginsberg, a criminal defense lawyer in Alexandria. “This is not a $740 million fraud with thousands of investors losing their retirement money, where you will get 15 years.”
Federal sentencing works off guidelines contained in a manual that is as intricate as the U.S. tax code. It lays out how points will be added or subtracted for various crimes, circumstances surrounding those crimes or traits of the offenders to calculate a sentencing range.
Judges must consider the guidelines but are not bound by them, leaving them discretion to weigh factors such as abusing a position of trust or an offender’s mental or emotional state that could drive a sentence up or down.
It could be harder, some lawyers said, to reach the legal threshold for getting a sentence reduction due to an offender’s mental and emotional conditions — a factor touched on in court by Maureen McDonnell’s defense team, who said she was emotionally starved by her husband and “gaga for Jonnie.”
“From what I saw in the case, that doesn’t rise to the legal defense,” of mental duress, Ginsberg said.
If the convictions were overturned or after a prison term, the McDonnells would have to find a path forward as other politicians have done. History shows that there is life after a corruption conviction. Edwin W. Edwards, the former Democratic congressman and governor from Louisiana, served eight years in federal prison on racketeering charges. Since his release in 2011, supporters have asked for a pardon from President Obama so he could run for governor again — but he hasn’t gotten one. In the meantime, he starred last year with his third wife, Trina, in a reality TV show called “The Governor’s Wife.”
Peter Hermann and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.