Ex-Virginia first lady sentenced to a year in prison
RICHMOND — Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell was sentenced Friday to one year and 1 day in prison for her role in a bribery scheme that destroyed her husband’s political career.
U.S. District Judge James Spencer sentenced McDonnell on eight public corruption counts. The couple had been found guilty of doing favors for a nutritional supplements executive in exchange for $165,000 in gifts and loans. Prosecutors had asked for an 18-month sentence for the former first lady. Defense attorneys requested probation and 4,000 hours of community service.
Fighting back tears, McDonnell apologized to her family and Virginians and said she takes full responsibility.
“I would ask in your sentence today that you consider the punishment I’ve already received,” she said. “My marriage is broken, my family is hurting and my reputation is in shatters.”
But the judge called the case “puzzling and bizarre,” saying there appeared to be two Maureen McDonnells — the loving mother and devoted wife and the first lady “who belittled and terrorized employees” at the Executive Mansion.
“How can a person become so bedazzled by material possessions that she can no longer see the difference between what’s appropriate and inappropriate,” Spencer said.
McDonnell can remain free on bond while she appeals the convictions, the judge said.
Her husband, former Gov. Bob McDonnell, convicted of 11 counts, was sentenced to two years in prison last month. He is free on bond while he appeals the convictions to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear arguments May 12.
A jury in September found the McDonnells guilty of taking more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his company’s nutritional supplements — primarily the tobacco-derived anti-inflammatory Anatabloc. Among the gifts were about $20,000 in designer accessories and clothing for Maureen McDonnell and a $6,500 Rolex watch she gave her husband for Christmas.
Bob McDonnell, who was widely considered a possible Mitt Romney running mate before the scandal broke, testified during the six-week trial. His wife did not.
Maureen McDonnell is likely the first modern-day spouse of a governor convicted on felony charges arising from her occupancy in an executive mansion, according to scholars and research conducted by The Associated Press. First spouses of the states have had lesser brushes with the law, such as a former West Virginia first lady who was acquitted more than a century ago on charges of forging her first husband’s signature, but none has confronted the prospect of a prison term for a felony conviction.
Lewis L. Gould, a University of Texas professor emeritus who wrote a research paper in the 1980s on the spouses of governors, said state first ladies borrow heavily from the public service example of the spouses of presidents. But they generally have little guidance on the demands of the largely ceremonial job, he said.
Gould said he envisions discussions among the first ladies in years to come along the lines of, “You have to watch out. Look what happened to one of us in Virginia.”
Supporters testified Friday that Maureen McDonnell is a thoughtful woman devoted to her family, but she was overwhelmed by her role as first lady.
Friend Lisa Kratz Thomas said Maureen has barely left her house since she was convicted last September and has little social interaction outside of a Bible study.
“She’s lost her dignity,” Thomas said. “She’s really become a prisoner in her own home.”
Daughter Rachel McDonnell said the scandal surrounding her parents has driven her family apart and that her mother feels “very alone.”
The third of nine children of an FBI agent, Maureen McDonnell became a Washington Redskins cheerleader in the early 1970s. She met her husband-to-be in 1973, when he was attending Notre Dame on an ROTC scholarship, and they were married in 1976.
Her lawyers say in court papers that she dedicated her adult life to raising the couple’s five children — three of whom were in court Friday, along with Bob McDonnell — and supporting her husband’s political career. She worked off and on in a variety of jobs, including selling nutritional supplements from home.
The trial exposed details of the McDonnells’ strained marriage as defense attorneys tried to show that the couple could not have conspired to extract bribes from Williams because they were barely communicating. Several witnesses testified about Maureen McDonnell’s erratic behavior and angry outbursts, which nearly prompted a mass walkout by the Executive Mansion staff. Bob McDonnell testified that he began working later than necessary to avoid his wife’s wrath.
Maureen McDonnell’s attorney, William Burck, told jurors that his client developed a “crush” on Williams as her time with her increasingly busy husband dwindled. Some witnesses described the former first lady’s relationship with Williams as inappropriate, but nobody suggested it was physical.
Williams, who testified under immunity for the prosecution, denied any romantic connection and said he only gave the McDonnells loans and luxury goods to get their help as he sought state-backed research of Anatabloc.
On Friday, Maureen McDonnell alluded to the judge’s statement at her husband’s sentencing that she had “let the serpent,” Williams, into the Executive Mansion.
“The venom from that snake has poisoned my marriage, has poisoned my family, has poisoned the commonwealth that I love,” she said.
“I opened the door, and I blame no one but myself.”
Associated Press writer Steve Szkotak and news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.