McDonnell’s sentencing hits many hard

The two-year prison sentence a federal judge imposed on former Gov. Bob McDonnell Tuesday was far lighter than what prosecutors had sought, but it was enough to leave some local lawmakers and Republican party activists dismayed and unsettled.

Some blamed McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, as the cause of a scandal that rocked Virginia’s state government like few events in recent history. Others said the collapse of McDonnell’s once luminous political career has created an opportunity to strengthen state ethics laws that will discourage other government officials from actions that could cost them their jobs, reputations and personal freedom.

William Holtzman, CEO of Holtzman Oil Corp. in Mount Jackson, has long counted himself as a loyal supporter of McDonnell, so much so that he contributed $10,000 to help the former governor pay his legal defense bills.

“I was sorry to see that,” Holtzman said of McDonnell’s sentence. “I think Bob is basically a really good person. I don’t think he’s dishonest. I think he’s an honorable guy.

“I think he got trapped in a situation with his wife, and I think his wife was the culprit, and unfortunately he didn’t have the strength to stand up to her and say, ‘you can’t do that.'”

The image of Maureen McDonnell as a modern day Lady Macbeth rose from the trial that led a jury to convict both McDonnells on a total of 19 counts of public corruption. The couple took more than $165,000 in gifts such as a Rolex watch, designer clothing and accessories and free family vacations from a wealthy businessman who sought and received their help in promoting a dietary supplement.

Bob McDonnell and his defense attorneys sought to portray the couple’s marriage as in shambles and unsuited for the kind of conspiracy required to wring bribes from businessman Jonnie Williams. One witness admitted calling Maureen McDonnell “a nutbag” and others described her as prone to operatic tantrums.

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said he was one of the more than 400 who wrote letters to U.S. District Judge James Spencer paying tribute to Bob McDonnell’s character.

Obenshain said he has known McDonnell for 15 years.

“Bob McDonnell is and has been a friend for a long time,” Obenshain said. “I’m just sick and heartbroken for him and his family.”

McDonnell, who is scheduled to report to prison on Feb. 9, said he plans to appeal the sentence. His attorneys asked for 6,000 hours of community service and no prison time. Prosecutors initially sought a prison sentence of more than 10 years

“It was certainly my hope that he wouldn’t spend any time in prison, and it is still my hope that something will happen that will allow that result,” Obenshain said.

Obenshain said he has “communicated” with McDonnell recently “and I just know he’s been struggling with this and trying to move on with his life.”

Obenshain and Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, agreed that McDonnell’s sentencing will give lawmakers an incentive to pass ethics reform that would build upon legislation authored by Gilbert in the last General Assembly session.

Gilbert called McDonnell “a good man by all accounts, and he just made some bad decisions.”

Gilbert said he plans to introduce a bill that would place an across the board cap of $100 on gifts to all state and local officials. Another part of the bill would require legislators to have travel cleared in advance by the state ethics commission. The goal, Gilbert said, is to “write a law that everybody can understand” while still allowing elected officials to conduct innocuous interactions with their constituents.

“I think the public trust is shaken in the wake of the governor’s conviction, and we will be responsive to that in just a couple of weeks,” Gilbert said of his plans for ethics reform.

Dominic Repici, the former chairman of the Warren County Republican Committee, said McDonnell’s fate may make it harder to recruit good candidates to enter politics.

“It’s so difficult to find quality people,” Repici said. “I hate to see somebody like Bob McDonnell, who I feel had a good career and wanted to be helpful, suddenly get thrown on the ash heap.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com