Federal prosecutors will not attempt to retry former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on corruption charges, ending a years-long saga that rocked the commonwealth’s political class and cut short the rise of a Republican Party star.
The conclusion came unceremoniously, as prosecutors filed one-paragraph documents telling a federal appeals court they would move to dismiss the indictments. It means that the McDonnells — who have always maintained they did nothing illegal — will avoid criminal convictions and prison time.
But the images produced at their trial — the troubled marriage, the lavish vacations, a Ferrari ride, the Rolex watch — can hardly be undone. And the case left in its wake a new legal definition of what constitutes public corruption, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling tossing the former governor’s convictions.
In a statement, Robert McDonnell, 62, said the “final day of vindication has arrived.”
“I have become grateful for this experience of suffering, having used it to examine deeply all aspects of my life, and my role in the circumstances that led to this painful time for my beloved family and Commonwealth,” he said.
His attorneys said in a statement: “We have said from the very first day that Bob McDonnell is an innocent man. After a long ordeal traversing the entire legal system, that truth has finally prevailed. We are thrilled Governor McDonnell can finally move on from the nightmare of the last three years and begin rebuilding his life.”
William A. Burck, an attorney for Maureen McDonnell, said: “We thank the Department of Justice for the care with which they reviewed the case. We are thrilled and thankful that Maureen can now move on with her life.”
The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia had pushed to move forward and retry the McDonnells even after the Supreme Court ruling that would have made their case substantially more difficult. But the decision ultimately rested with Justice Department higher-ups, who apparently rejected arguments from the prosecutors.
The Justice Department said in a statement, “After carefully considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further.” Justice officials declined to discuss their reasoning.
McDonnell and his wife were convicted in 2014 of public corruption for taking more than $175,000 in loans and gifts — the Rolex watch, vacations, partial payments for a daughter’s wedding reception among them — in exchange for helping Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. advance a dietary supplement his company had developed.
For Williams’s generosity, prosecutors alleged, the McDonnells arranged to connect him with state officials, let him throw a luncheon at the governor’s mansion to help launch the product and allowed him to shape the a guest list at a mansion reception meant for health-care leaders.
The trial was a weeks-long affair that saw the McDonnells’ extravagant lifestyle — paid for by Williams — put on display. It also served to air unflattering details of the couple’s personal life when defense attorneys asserted that their marriage was broken and thus they could not have worked together to solicit Williams’s largesse.
Robert McDonnell was ultimately sentenced to two years in prison and his wife to a year and a day. But they spent no actual time in prison as their appeals moved through the court system. Then the Supreme Court in June threw out Robert McDonnell’s conviction, ruling that jurors were wrongly instructed on the meaning of an “official act” — the thing he was said to have done for Williams — and therefore deserved at least a retrial.
The court’s ruling set a higher bar for prosecuting public corruption and said explicitly that setting up meetings or arranging events for benefactors could not by themselves serve as a public official’s end of a corrupt bargain. In light of the new standard, prosecutors were forced to consider whether they could win the case in a retrial.
Robert McDonnell, who had vigorously asserted his innocence, said in his statement that he appreciated the Justice Department “applying the correct rule of law articulated by the Supreme Court” and “for doing justice for me, my family, my friends, my Commonwealth and its servants, and for all those involved in the democratic process.” But he added that his “wrongful convictions were based on a false narrative and incorrect law.”
“We have the finest law enforcement officers and best justice system in the world in the United States of America,” he said. “It usually gets it right in the end.”
In its statement, McDonnell’s defense team, led by Hank Asbill, John Brownlee and Noel Francisco, said it believed that the Justice Department “brought this case in good faith based on its view of the law as it existed at the time.”
What is next for the former governor remains unclear. He said in his statement: “I know not fully what the future holds as I enter the ‘fourth quarter’ of life. I do know it will be a wonderful adventure, beginning with 4 blessed new grandchildren, a new small business, countless new friends, and multiple new ministry opportunities.”
Janet Kelly, former secretary of the commonwealth and a close friend, said he was “obviously relieved and very grateful, and for the first time in several months he knows what true hope feels like.” She called him “a changed person,” who had grown more empathetic toward others as a result of his own struggles. Kelly said she doubted that he would return to politics although she said he would still do something to help people.
“I think there are bigger and better things in store for him than anything the political sphere would offer,” Kelly said. “He got into politics to help people, but there are plenty of ways to do that outside of politics.”
The case shook Richmond, where until the former governor’s conviction politicians had been allowed to take any gift from lobbyists and others who sought to influence their work. Last year, lawmakers limited what any individual can give to $100 a year.
In a statement, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said he agreed with the decision to not prosecute McDonnell further.
“Governor McDonnell made mistakes and he apologized and paid a significant price,” McAuliffe said. “Moving on from this episode is the right thing to do for the McDonnell family and for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Robert McDonnell — whose name was the subject of vice-presidential speculation when Mitt Romney was running for the 2012 GOP nomination — undeniably sustained a blow to his own reputation. Even in throwing out his convictions, the Supreme Court called his actions “tawdry.” In a recent Washington Post poll, two-thirds of Virginia adults surveyed said he should not seek elected office again. Even 60 percent of Republicans said they would like to see him remain in private life. A plurality of Virginians said they thought that the Supreme Court was wrong to overturn the verdict.
Tucker Martin, who worked for the former attorney general and governor, said he hoped that the end of the legal saga would bring about a reevaluation on the part of Virginians of McDonnell’s term in office.
“There’s a big part of me that hopes that after a bruising and tiring and sad three years, people will take a fresh look at Bob McDonnell and all he did for Virginia,” Martin said.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in McDonnell’s case set a precedent that could help others accused of public corruption, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is awaiting an appeals court ruling in a corruption case; and former New York State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver (D), who is aiming to overturn his corruption conviction. But some legal analysts say the ruling — and the decision not to prosecute McDonnell in spite of it — was necessary.
“The decision not to prosecute vindicates those who believed all along that this case was an inappropriate extension of the bribery and gratuity statute,” said white-collar criminal defense attorney Jacob Frenkel. “Sometimes it takes the Supreme Court to rein in prosecutorial overreaching, and that is exactly what has occurred here.”