RICHMOND — Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court vacated his public corruption conviction on Monday, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell looked past the three-year legal ordeal and expressed optimism about the new life ahead of him.
Through a spokesman, McDonnell, 62, declined requests for interviews. But from his home in Virginia Beach, he released a statement thanking the justices as well as friends and relatives who stood by him. In it, he credited his lawyers and God.
“Over this past 40 months, God strengthened and comforted me through the love and support of many friends, family, and even strangers, through His abundant, miraculous and amazing grace, and through the eternal truths of His holy word,” said McDonnell, a devout Catholic. “It is my hope that this matter will soon be over and that my family and I can begin to rebuild our lives.”
Still, questions remain about the future of a man once considered a rising star on the national political stage. Federal prosecutors could attempt to retry McDonnell based on new, tougher standards on federal corruption charges laid out by Monday’s Supreme Court decision. The Justice Department declined to comment on that possibility Monday.
It seemed unlikely to some of the attorneys and political observers who have followed the case from the start.
“The government pursued this case on a very specific theory,” said Noel Francisco, a partner at Jones Day who represented McDonnell before the Supreme Court. “Now that that theory is gone, I’ll leave it up to the government to decide what they want to do.”
A man who spent 22 years in public office, first as a member of the House of Delegates, then state attorney general before finally reaching the governor’s mansion, McDonnell has not indicated if he’s considering a return to public service.
But Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said the “tawdry tales” of the corruption case — as characterized in the Supreme Court decision written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — would be his biggest barrier.
“It’s difficult to run for office under the banner of ‘convicted but won on appeal,’ ” he said. “We don’t try cases by referendum, but that is how we elect public officials, and public opinion was pretty squarely against Bob McDonnell’s conduct.”
A jury in September 2014 found unanimously that McDonnell used the governor’s office to help Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a wealthy dietary supplement company executive, advance his business interests. In exchange, Williams gave McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, $177,000 in loans, luxury vacations and a Rolex watch.
Four months later, a federal judge sentenced McDonnell to two years in prison — a precipitous fall for a man once considered a possible contender for president. McDonnell argued that simply referring a constituent to another state official was not among the “official actions” barred by the federal corruption law.
The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that setting up a meeting, talking to another official or organizing an event — without a more specific action — is not “official action.”
On Monday, a cadre of McDonnell’s supporters gathered reporters at the former governor’s suggestion to reframe McDonnell’s life as a tale of redemption.
The ruling returned McDonnell to “his rightful place in history as one of Virginia’s finest governors,” said state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), who encouraged nearly 90 current and former legislators to sign a brief backing McDonnell, Stanley told reporters. “The commonwealth of Virginia awoke from a two-year nightmare to discover it was only a bad dream and that, like we had felt in our hearts and knew in our souls all along, our governor had been wrongly convicted.”
Lawyers for Maureen McDonnell, whose separate appeal of her own conviction had been put on hold as her husband’s case played out, said his victory means she should also be vindicated.
“This decision applies no less to our client Maureen McDonnell and requires that her conviction immediately be tossed out as well, which we are confident the prosecutors must agree with,” her lawyer, William A. Burck, said in a statement. “Mrs. McDonnell, like her husband, was wrongfully convicted.”
Not everyone agreed.
Anna Scholl, executive director of the liberal Progress Virginia, said the ruling should spur legislators to pass ethics laws that close loopholes and ensure accountability.
“Thanks to today’s decision, Virginians will have to continue waiting for justice for Bob McDonnell’s violation of the public trust,” she said in a statement. “Politicians like Bob McDonnell who take advantage of their public office for private gain deserve the severest of sanctions for violating our trust and disgracing their office.”
In the three legislative sessions following McDonnell’s indictment, lawmakers passed laws that altered the culture of unchecked gift-giving within the General Assembly. But legislators remain free to take unlimited campaign contributions from individuals and corporations.
Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) and others filed bills to rein in such spending, but most died on unrecorded voice votes.
“None of this has addressed the issue of the cozy relationships that are formed through the use of campaign contributions,” Simon said. “In fact, some of what we’ve done is forced it into the campaign realm. That’s where the money’s flowing.”
In the year and a half that he has waited for courts to determine his fate, McDonnell returned from Richmond to Virginia Beach to live, became a grandfather four times over and immersed himself in work projects.
McDonnell started a firm with his sister advising several national clients on attracting sports franchises to cities. He has also worked to help set up international financing for an arena in Virginia Beach and has a contract with Bay Mechanical, a construction and maintenance company owned by a family friend, according to associates familiar with his professional dealings.
They describe a rich life spent visiting with friends and developing the personal relationships that were nearly impossible to sustain during the hubbub of a governorship. And he has forged deep bonds with others going through trying circumstances.
Janet Vestal Kelly, a close friend who served in his Cabinet as secretary of the commonwealth, said for those reasons she doesn’t expect him to seek public office again.
“I think he’s been ‘surprised by joy’ to get to know people on a different level, spend time connecting with people that he never would have gotten to before,” she said, referencing the title of a C.S. Lewis autobiography.
McDonnell also seemed to cherish new personal bonds forged through shared struggle.
In the statement, he thanked his legal team as well as “the many friends and relatives who steadfastly supported my family and me through this time of great uncertainty. Countless people have called, emailed, texted, and came to see me to lend a wise piece of advice, a message of hope, a heartfelt prayer, or a hug.”
Those kindnesses, he said, “have become the new tapestry of my life.”