About a month after his corruption conviction, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell paid a quiet visit to the home of an old Alexandria friend.
McDonnell and Liz Reiley had seen each other just once since middle school, yet their emotions poured out as he consoled her over the recent death of her sister, and she comforted him over the unfathomable turn his own life had taken.
“He was suffering,” Reiley recalled of their 90-minute conversation in October. “And I think when you’re suffering, it makes you more sensitive to other people’s suffering.”
In the strange four months of enforced limbo that have separated McDonnell’s shocking guilty verdict from his much-anticipated sentencing Tuesday, the former Republican governor has in some ways presided over an extended wake for his own once-promising political and personal future.
It has been an emotional time for McDonnell, who potentially faces a sentence of a decade or more in prison. Friends and associates say the 60-year-old former governor has struggled to process how 12 Virginians could believe that he is a criminal, selling his office in exchange for $177,000 in loans and luxury gifts and vacations from a dietary supplement company executive.
Friends say he has been downright depressed on some days but more upbeat on others, smiling nostalgically when talking about his time in office, a time when he was popular enough that it was thought he might be planning a presidential campaign this year.
He has jogged with friends to get in shape, grown a beard, and then shaved it.
He has savored time with his adult children, including his daughter, Jeanine, who is pregnant with McDonnell’s first grandchild, due this month. And he has made a particular point of reaching out to people like Reiley, who have suffered recent tragedy.
But he has remained estranged from his wife, Maureen, who was convicted along with him and has been blamed by many close to McDonnell for creating the scandal. After 38 years of marriage, the two left the courthouse separately after September’s verdict and did not speak that night, according to people close to them.
They live apart, with the former governor spending most nights in Virginia Beach or at a church rectory in Richmond. But they came together for the holidays, spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with their children at their house in suburban Richmond.
Alongside his grief, McDonnell appears to have also spent the past months going through some of the motions of life as a respected retired governor.
He met with his successor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), whose office confirmed that the two talked for more than an hour in the days just after the verdict, meeting with him at the rectory. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) made a similar visit several weeks later.
He has lent an ear to former staffers, some now forging professional lives for the first time in years outside his orbit, and he took on a consulting contract from a Virginia Beach company that pays $7,500 a month.
He has not hidden from public view, either: He participated in an annual Virginia Beach charity walk that raises money for ALS research, just as he had as governor. And he attended a public Veterans Day ceremony in Richmond, where he told a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he had “great faith in God” and was “doing well.”
His annual pre-Thanksgiving e-mail to his most senior political advisers arrived on schedule, albeit with a particularly somber tone. He thanked the group for supporting him while he has “borne my cross through this long dark walk in the valley.”
“He understands the situation and the gravity of the situation he’s in,” said state Sen. Jeffrey L. McWaters (R-Virginia Beach), a close friend. “But I think he has great hope. Great hope in America, still, in our system of justice. And great hope for what the world has for his future, though he’s clueless on what that will be.”
The McDonnells declined to be interviewed through their attorneys, who also would not comment about the details of their post-conviction life.
But his friends, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could speak more freely about the McDonnells’ private family life, said he remains optimistic about the possibility that his conviction might be overturned on appeal and hopeful that, in the meantime, he might be allowed to remain free on bail. McDonnell’s attorneys have asked that he be allowed to skip prison entirely and be sentenced Tuesday to perform 6,000 hours of community service instead.
Friends say he is nevertheless clear-eyed about the shattering alternative: The probation office has calculated that sentencing guidelines call for him to spend between 10 and 12.5 years in prison. Prosecutors have endorsed that recommendation, and judges in the Eastern District of Virginia accept probation office guidelines in 70 percent of cases.
“How do you prepare for that?” said Joe Damico, a close McDonnell friend from high school. “This is a Boy Scout. This is a guy who I doubt he’s ever had a parking ticket. . . . I don’t think he has any idea what it would be like.”
A prison term of a decade or more would mean that McDonnell would spend much of the remaining useful years of his life behind bars. He would probably miss weddings among the three of his five adult children who have not yet married, as well as the births of additional grandchildren. Damico said McDonnell’s message to his children, however, has been clear: “Don’t let this predicament ruin your lives,” he has told them.
The worst moments for McDonnell, friends said, were the 24 hours right after the verdict. In court, McDonnell had collapsed, sobbing with his head in his hands.
At the rectory just after, he was emotionally devastated.
“I can’t think of much worse, short of having one of your children die,” Damico said.
A turning point came the next day, when a group of his most loyal former staffers — some of whom had been required to testify as witnesses for the prosecution — jointly visited their ex-boss. Over pizza and wine, they recalled funny anecdotes from McDonnell’s campaigns and years in state office. They poked fun at one another. For the first time, McDonnell smiled.
In the weeks since, the detail-oriented former prosecutor has kept himself occupied reviewing filings and discussing legal strategy with his attorneys.
In addition to Reiley, he has become close to the grandfather of a teen who collapsed and died at the end of a half-marathon in Virginia Beach in March and spent time with the husband of Ruthanne Lodato, the Alexandria music teacher who was fatally shot in her home in February.
“He’s really living his life now in ways he didn’t before, and he’s living it like someone who has a new perspective on what’s important in life,” said Janet Vestal Kelly, a close friend who served as secretary of the commonwealth under McDonnell.
Always a deeply religious Catholic, he has turned to faith for comfort, meeting with a prayer group and working closely with the Rev. Wayne Ball, with whom he lives at the Richmond rectory.
“I am so very thankful to God and His Son Jesus for the amazing talented group of ‘apostles’ He chose to work at my side as we served the people,” he wrote to his former staff in November.
McWaters said that McDonnell appears to crave normalcy. A few days after the verdict, the pair laced up their tennis shoes and went for a long run along the shore in Virginia Beach. They bantered, McWaters recalled, long a feature of their friendship.
During another run, he said McDonnell took selfies with a group of high school students.
McDonnell’s business consulting job is in Virginia Beach, so he spends part of each week living in the community he first represented in the House of Delegates.
Prosecutors revealed the consulting contract in a recent court filing; a number of McDonnell’s friends said they either did not know where he is employed or declined to provide the employer’s name.
McDonnell testified during his trial that he had moved out of the Henrico County home he shared with his wife shortly before the proceedings, an attempt to escape his difficult relationship. His attorneys had argued during trial that the marriage was too broken for McDonnell and his wife to conspire to sell his office.
Prosecutors had expressed skepticism, showing jurors pictures of the couple walking into court hand-in-hand for pretrial hearings and noting that the two held a joint 60th birthday party in June.
But people close to them said that these days, the couple speak only from time to time, mostly as they prepare to sell the $835,000 home in Henrico — which they purchased after McDonnell was elected attorney general in 2005 — to help ease financial strain.
Maureen McDonnell was there shortly after the trial, looking on as the former governor hauled some of the furniture from their home out to the street to be picked up by Goodwill as the couple packed up their belongings, Damico said. She is not expected to attend Tuesday’s sentencing.
McDonnell has grappled not just with strains in his marriage but also with a deep split between his wife and other members of his extended family. McDonnell’s sisters, in particular, blame Maureen McDonnell for initiating the family’s relationship with businessman Jonnie R. Williams and then hiding some of Williams’s gifts from their brother.
“It was a slow and most painful drip of the truth about her conduct that was heartbreaking to witness,” McDonnell’s sister, also named Maureen, wrote to the court about revelations of the federal investigation as she asked for leniency in sentencing for her brother.
That view is shared by Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky, the couple’s eldest daughter, who was always closer to her father — following him to the University of Notre Dame and then into the Army.
In the fall, Zubowsky declined to invite her mother to a Virginia Beach baby shower attended by her father, according to two people with knowledge of the party.
A person familiar with her thinking said that Zubowsky’s anger stems from her belief that her mother has never apologized for her role in the scandal. Other members of the family — including Zubowsky, her siblings and the former governor himself — have apologized for taking gifts from Williams.
(Several McDonnell children expressed regret for having accepted luxury items and vacations from Williams in letters written to the court.)
The McDonnells’ other four children have retained ties to their mother. Daughters Rachel and Cailin sat with her after the verdict was delivered; Cailin Young, who lives in Richmond, is helping to solicit letters to be submitted to the judge on Maureen McDonnell’s behalf in advance of her Feb. 20 sentencing.
Williams, the one-time friend whose largesse led to the McDonnells’ downfall, reached a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to escape all prosecution. Although he owns an estate outside of Richmond, his attorney said he and his wife are spending most of their time at his condominium in Florida. The attorney otherwise declined to comment.
In August, Williams severed all ties with Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals, the new name of the company he led when it was called Star Scientific.
Williams continues to believe in the promise of anatabine, the tobacco-based chemical that the jury found he sought to study at Virginia universities with McDonnell’s assistance.
Two people who are familiar with Williams’s activities say he is exploring a new business venture: anatabine-filled e-cigarettes.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.