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Bob and Maureen McDonnell convicted in historic corruption trial

Bob and Maureen McDonnell convicted in historic corruption trial

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Virginia’s 71st governor, Bob McDonnell, on Thursday became the first in the state’s history to be convicted of a felony, turning a legacy dominated by steering the state through austere times into one tarnished by corruption.

Just blocks from the state Capitol that served as the backdrop for his ascension to national prominence, a federal jury convicted McDonnell and former first lady Maureen McDonnell on multiple counts in U.S. District Court.

The stunning outcome for the once-rising Republican star is likely to cast a thunderbolt through the state’s political class — a warning that Virginia’s lax gift rules don’t immunize behavior from federal scrutiny.

The verdict is “a dynamite charge through the heart of Virginia political culture,” political analyst Robert Holsworth said outside the courthouse.

As a court clerk read the verdict count by count, finding Bob McDonnell guilty on 11 of 13 charges and Maureen McDonnell on nine of 13, the former governor dissolved into tears, covering his eyes and shuddering as several of his children audibly sobbed in the rows behind.

The former first lady also wept, as did other family members and supporters.

Judge James R. Spencer will sentence the McDonnells on Jan. 6. They could face decades in prison but are likely to be sentenced to considerably less time under federal guidelines. Defense attorney Henry Asbill said Bob McDonnell would appeal the verdict.

“All I can say is my trust remains in the Lord,” Bob McDonnell said as he left the courthouse and shuffled into a waiting vehicle on Broad Street.

Over the course of a six-week trial, federal prosecutors argued that the McDonnells helped boost the dietary supplement Anatabloc in exchange for more than $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the then-CEO of Star Scientific, which sold the product.

“This is a message to anybody in elected office in Virginia at the local or state level that simply adhering to Virginia laws does not protect you from potential federal prosecution if you are walking the line about gifts and loans the way that Bob McDonnell did,” said Holsworth, a consultant and former political analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Grim jurors

The packed courtroom was silent as grim-faced jurors entered and largely avoided eye contact with the defendants. The verdict sheets were handed to Spencer, who took several minutes reading each of the five pages and taking notes.

When the verdicts were announced, the former governor sat at the defendants’ table, his hands clasped in front of him, his head bowed as if in prayer. Maureen McDonnell appeared to be watching the judge.

Spencer handed the forms to the clerk who then began reading the first count: “We the jury find the defendant Robert F. McDonnell, guilty, as charged in count one of the indictment.”

Crying broke out in the two pews behind the defense tables reserved for the McDonnell family. Bob McDonnell started crying as the guilty verdicts continued, his hands to his face. By the time the clerk had reached the third count Maureen also cried, shaking her head as if saying “no.”

In the spectator area, the anguished cries escalated as supporters clutched each other with each guilty verdict read, interrupted briefly when Maureen McDonnell was found not guilty on count four, one of the charges of honest-services wire fraud. By count six, the guilty verdicts continuing, Bob McDonnell was again sobbing into his hands.

When the reading of the verdicts ended, the former governor sat back in his chair, his hands over his face, still crying.

“I know it has been a difficult task but I thank you for your sacrifice,” Spencer told the panel before stepping down from his bench to shake the jurors’ hands.

A ‘difficult case’

“It was very difficult,” juror Kathleen Carmody of Henrico County said in a phone interview Thursday evening. Carmody said she could comment on her own feelings but not on the jury’s 17 hours of deliberation over three days.

“It was a very difficult case and it was very excruciating, especially when the verdict was being read to watch what’s happening … to the family,” she added.

“But, I think the facts spoke for themselves.”

As he left the courtroom with his lawyers, an ashen-faced Bob McDonnell appeared to have regained much of his composure. The McDonnells, both appearing frozen in shock, exited the courthouse separately, the former governor surrounded by a large group of supporters.

The former first lady was supported by a smaller group and left minutes later, stopping briefly in the foyer.

“Come on, Mom. Mom, let’s just go,” said one of the McDonnells’ daughters, Cailin.

Jurors declined comment as they exited out of the back of the federal courthouse to avoid the crowds.

‘An important message’

This was “a difficult and disappointing day for the commonwealth and its citizens,” Dana J. Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, told reporters outside the courthouse shortly after the verdict was announced.

“Public service frequently requires sacrifice and almost always requires financial sacrifice,” he said. “When public officials turn to financial gain in exchange for official acts, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.”

Adam Lee, special agent in charge of the FBI in Richmond, said: “This was a challenging case for our team. This was a challenging case for the commonwealth.”

He added: “I think this case sends an important message that the FBI will engage and engage vigorously to any credible allegation of corruption.”

Asbill, one of Bob McDonnell’s lawyers, told reporters that he was “obviously very disappointed that we couldn’t bring this home for our clients today.”

A reporter asked Asbill whether Bob McDonnell got a fair trial.

“No,” Asbill said.

“You can look at all the motions we filed and judge for yourself.”

Earlier in the case, Spencer denied defense motions to sever the trials of the former governor and his wife, an issue that the defendants might revisit on appeal.

Holsworth said the prosecution succeeded by not trying the McDonnells on state laws but convincing the jury that the couple “violated and abused these federal statutes against bribery, public corruption and [denying Virginians’ right to] honest services.”

Many observers thought McDonnell was most vulnerable on the charges of making a false statement to a financial institution, he said, but the jury ended up acquitting him on those counts and putting “the hammer down on all the central charges” involving corruption.

The McDonnells were found not guilty on the two financial counts.

Sentencing range

Defense attorneys argued that the McDonnells’ marriage was so fractured that they could not have conspired to aid Williams. They further said the former governor did not give Star Scientific any special treatment or access that his administration would not have given any other Virginia company.

The jury not only rejected McDonnell’s defense that he was unaware of Williams’ corrupt intent but also “resoundingly rejected” his argument that marital dysfunction prevented the couple from conspiring, Holsworth said.

Andrew G. McBride, a former federal prosecutor and now a partner at Wiley Rein, said a likely sentencing guideline range for both defendants is a total of 30 to 37 months for the lead counts of public corruption.

“Mrs. McDonnell will likely face an additional six to eight months due to her conviction for obstruction,” he said.

“Although the wire fraud statute carries a statutory maximum of up to 30 years, it is very unlikely either defendant’s sentence will be outside of the two- to five-year range.”

The chef

The investigation was unexpectedly triggered by a separate probe into allegations that Todd Schneider, the McDonnells’ chef at the Executive Mansion, stole food.

In a 2012 interview with investigators, Schneider detailed the McDonnells’ relationship with Williams, telling them of a $15,000 check the then-CEO provided to cover catering expenses at the June 2011 wedding reception of the McDonnells’ daughter Cailin.

As the investigation expanded, authorities uncovered a slew of gifts — designer dresses and accessories from a $20,000 New York shopping spree for the first lady, an engraved $6,500 Rolex watch for the governor, golf outings at Williams’ exclusive club, a lake house vacation that featured a trip in Williams’ Ferrari, and $120,000 in three loans the couple solicited to help meet the obligations of their sagging real estate investments.

Schneider, fired from the mansion in early 2012, eventually pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts of embezzlement and received a one-year suspended sentence.

Williams, under investigation for securities violations related to Star stock, was given broad immunity in exchange for his testimony against the former first couple. Attempts to reach Williams for comment were unsuccessful.

The McDonnells’ marriage

Through testimony, records and exhibits, the trial lifted the cover on the former first couple’s marriage, exposed private family dynamics, and hauled three of the McDonnells’ five children onto the witness stand, along with family friends.

Bob McDonnell disclosed in his testimony that he and his wife of 38 years lived apart for the trial; he stayed with his priest in the rectory at St. Patrick’s.

Maureen McDonnell’s emotional state was a topic — her former chief of staff called her a “nutbag” — and mansion employees and Bob McDonnell aides criticized her management style. The first lady exercised her right not to testify.

Prosecutors presented to jurors thousands of dollars in luxury goods that Williams gave the first family, an array of designer goods and golf gear. Emotional family emails and text messages were splayed on screens as part of 3.5 million documents harvested through the course of the investigation.

The trial juxtaposed the public image of the conservative, detail-oriented, policy wonk governor with his troubled personal life — at least by defense accounts.

The investigation and trial represented a dramatic turn for a governor once considered a potential vice presidential candidate. In the course of two years, McDonnell fell from political heights as a surrogate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to a grayed, pensive presence who had largely retreated from the public eye since leaving office in January.

After the government’s indictment of the McDonnells on Jan. 21, days after Bob McDonnell left office, the former governor and his wife held a news conference and vowed to fight the charges. Bob McDonnell launched a private legal defense fund, which sent a fundraising plea pegging the cost of the former governor’s defense at about $1 million.

In the indictment and in court, prosecutors alleged that the McDonnells needed money.

The McDonnells had about $75,000 in credit card debt when they moved into the Executive Mansion in January 2010, while a real estate company he owned with his sister, who also is named Maureen McDonnell, was losing $40,000 to $60,000 a year.

Key communications

Absent clear evidence of bribery, prosecutors attempted to piece together facts and connect them by timing. They anchored their case with testimony from Williams, but sought to corroborate it with a trove of records including loan documents, text messages, emails, phone records, calendars and photographs.

The government case also relied heavily on emails and text messages between Williams and the McDonnells. It sought to tie them in time to the Aug. 30, 2011, Anatabloc luncheon at the Executive Mansion and a Feb. 29, 2012, health care leaders reception, also at the mansion, that the Star Scientific executive attended with two dozen associates.

Notably, prosecutors pointed out a February 2012 email that Bob McDonnell sent to a senior aide that said, “Pls see me about anatabloc issues at VCU and UVA.”

The aide, Jasen Eige, responded to the email, “We need to be careful with this issue.”

McDonnell had sent the late-night email to Eige just six minutes after he messaged Williams about arrangements for a $50,000 loan to MoBo, the Virginia Beach real estate company in which the governor and his sister were partners.

Bob McDonnell was charged alone — and found not guilty — on count 12, making a false statement on a personal financial statement submitted to TowneBank. Bob and Maureen McDonnell were both charged — and found not guilty — on count 13, making a false statement on a loan application to the Pentagon Federal Credit Union.

The former governor’s sister Maureen McDonnell testified that she and her brother knew going into the real estate venture that the rental income would not cover all of the expenses, at least at first.

And Bob McDonnell disputed that he was in dire financial straits. He said that while the debt was high when he entered office, he was working on paying it down.

Versions of the truth

Asbill, one of Bob McDonnell’s lawyers, had told jurors in his closing argument that “Jonnie got nothing from Bob.” Asbill said that after 2½ years of intense searching, authorities still “haven’t found a thing.”

The defense also took aim at Williams’ immunity deal. Asbill told jurors at closing, “This is Jonnie’s greatest con.”

In opening statements, Bill Burck, Maureen McDonnell’s attorney, said the former first lady had a crush on Williams.

In closing statements, he said jurors might view the number of gifts she received from Williams as tacky or her interest in nutraceuticals as “weird,” but “weird is not a crime.”

Prosecutors had a different take on what the McDonnells took from Williams.

“The single, simple question of this case is: Why did he give them, why did they take them?” prosecutor David V. Harbach II told the jury in his closing argument. Williams knew what he wanted, the prosecutor said, and “the defendants knew what Jonnie Williams wanted.”

“That is bribery,” Harbach said. “That is corruption, the real thing.”

McDonnell has said that he made an error in judgment in accepting gifts from Williams, but he never wavered in his insistence that he did nothing illegal.

But with Thursday’s verdicts, it appears the jury believed the final argument from prosecutor Michael S. Dry.

“Why would he do it?” Dry asked. “Why would he corrupt his office? ... The answer is simple: He didn’t think he’d get caught.”

Shortly after a jury on Thursday found former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife guilty on several counts, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he was “deeply saddened by the events of the trial … and the impact it has had on our commonwealth’s reputation for honesty and clean government.”

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Staff writers Karin Kapsidelis, Louis Llovio and Bill McKelway contributed to this report.

Related to this story

Thursday’s stunning convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, in a gifts scandal have reignited debate over whether Virginia lawmakers will take another stab at reforming the commonwealth’s notoriously lax laws of what public servants can take on the job.

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