Takeaways From Bob McDonnell’s Sentencing

Mcd sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

The outpouring of support for convicted former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was overwhelming at his sentencing hearing yesterday at which he was told that he will serve two years in a federal penitentiary.

And this very support stands in marked contrast to McDonnell’s performance on the witness stand during his marathon trial last summer. There he alternated between saying that he “holds himself accountable” and then blaming his aides, vitamin salesman Jonnie R. Williams and, of course, his estranged wife Maureen who was set up to take the fall.

So which Bob is really Bob?

In U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer’s courtroom, the hours’ long reading of letters of support and 11 witness testimonials from the stand became tedious and repetitive. Bob kneels down to comfort a sick woman. Bob helps out Katrina hurricane victims on his week-long vacation, builds a basketball court and breaks his jaw. Bob restores voting rights to 8,128 convicted felons who had served their time. Bob’s only flaws are his gullibility and naïvite. Bob writes thank you notes.

The most impressive supporter by far was L. Douglas Wilder, the former Richmond mayor who became the first-ever African-American governor. Always unpredictable, the Democratic politician came down hard on Bob’s side, saying he’s known him for years and found him to “to be of his word.” Wilder touched off applause in the courtroom he blamed Williams as “the man who started this bribe” as “the one who got away clean.”

All of these people were trying to convince Judge Spencer that Bob should not get jail time but 6,000 hours of community service. One option would be to stick him in a service coordination job on the island nation of Haiti. The job normally would pay $100,000 including benefits but Bob wouldn’t get the money and would work and have to sleep in a hot and buggy room. Other possibilities including holding an unpaid $60,000 job coordinating a food bank in southwest Virginia.

To his credit, Judge Spencer didn’t bite. Prosecutor Michael Dry said that McDonnell is free to do all the community service he wants after he serves his time behind bars. McDonnell could have gotten more than 12 years in prison. Spencer gave him two.

The sentence is on the light side but is probably fair. McDonnell has been tremendously humiliated. He completely dishonored his public trust and will go down in history as the Virginia governor who was corrupt. At least he is getting some jail time.

And he might win on appeal. It’s not a slam dunk but there is respected legal opinion out there that “honest services fraud” can be viewed in a tight or loose focus. Spencer chose a tight focus but we will have to see if the appeal McDonnell has filed gets to the U.S. Fourth Circuit and then Supreme Court.

Next up is wife Maureen, who is a tragic figure and also was convicted of corruption. Her own daughters characterized her as a sick woman who badly needs help. Some columnists have pumped her up, saying she’s the unsung heroine stuck raising the kids while the ambitious politician is selfishly away building his career.

Something about that argument doesn’t ring true to me. Maureen McDonnell may well have despised the time Bob spent away from her but she also was right beside him, pushing her own agenda such as selling nutraceuticals and backing pet programs such as marketing Virginia wines and helped injured military veterans. As First Lady, she was no shrinking violet when it came to letting her wishes known to state employees.

She comes up for sentencing Feb. 20 and now that her husband’s fate is known, it seems likely she won’t get any jail time. If so, maybe she can get the help she seems to badly need and the McDonnell family can start to heal their terrible wounds.

One of the character witnesses Tuesday was William Howell, the Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates who provided the enormously valuable insight that “people would describe Bob as a Boy Scout.” Not only is Howell’s remark insipid, it hides how much he’s responsible for maintaining the total mess that policing ethics among Virginia public officials has become.

No matter how many Wednesday morning Bible studies Howell says he attended with McDonnell, he still did nothing to improve regulation of political donations and gifts. If anything, he’s the problem not the solution since he minimizes every decent initiative to rationalize Virginia’s loosey-goosey system. If there were clear rules, McDonnell may never have gotten caught in his quagmire. He might have known when to avoid crossing the line.

Howell told the court that the General Assembly is busy setting its house right and that McDonnell’s predicament “Most certainly . . . has had a deterrent effect.” That was likely the most ridiculous statement during the five hours of court testimony on a horrid sentencing day.

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9 responses to “Takeaways From Bob McDonnell’s Sentencing

  1. Excellent post Peter!

    I kind of thought the 2 years was appropriate.. give the fact that he really did not violate Virginia’s totally corrupt ethics.. but did engage in things that have gotten politicos from other states into prison…

    but I think everyone missed what would have been a very excellent alternative – that would have been a business entitled: The Cucinelli and McDonnell Oyster Company.

    http://goo.gl/RyKZFE

    I mean – what could be better than having former politicians help save the bay and return to salt-of-the-earth occupations…????

    I’m half serious. I DO believe in REDEMPTION … and I think McDonnell went astray – with some help… but he’s no Richard Nixon or Spiro Agnew (or Phil Hamilton) style – “crook”.

    and while I’m making wishes – I wish the right wing in Virginia would get off their Judge conspiracy theories and for that matter – the whole govt conspiracy idiocy.

    again, thanks for the well-crafted article, Peter.

  2. All things considered, I think the sentence was lenient but fair. I still have problems convicting McDonnell on the basis of Jonnie Williams’ tainted testimony, and I still have concerns about the way federal law was stretched to criminalize what McDonnell did. On the other hand, I think he showed colossally poor judgment, and accepting $100,000+ in gifts and loans from someone like Jonnie Williams, who was seeking favors from state government, was clearly unacceptable. As a society, we need to signal that such behavior is not to be tolerated. I worry about some of the precedents we’ve set with this case, but I won’t lose a lot of sleep over McDonnell going to jail.

    Like it or not, the law is the law, the jury has spoken and Judge Spencer had to sentence McDonnell with jail time. Reducing the sentence to two years was an act of mercy and leniency. (So much for the idea, which I took note of in an earlier blog post, that Spencer bore McDonnell a grudge for opposing the appointment of his wife to the Va Supreme Court). McDonnell will be 62 years old when he gets out. If he’s truly penitent, as I believe he is, he will have plenty of time to make amends through good works.

  3. I’ve had no desire to visit that trial but I have to admit I would have liked to be there for Wilder’s testimony. Apparently Wilder was the only character witness that the Feds chose to cross examine, because of course his testimony was so powerful. But everybody in the courtroom with any knowledge of Wilder would have known you don’t cross swords with him. Apparently it was on cross that he came out with the blast at how Williams was living high on the hog, safe from prosecution, because of his deal with prosecutors. It was that comment that caused the audience to erupt in applause. Despite what you see in the beer ads, Wilder remains the most interesting man in the Virginia political world — and of course he doesn’t mind one bit!

    Wilder was right and the judge had to factor this in — it is not “justice” when the man who said he repeatedly bribed the McDonnell’s (based on his own testimony, he assumed he was engaged in quid pro quo) gets off free and clear. I’d rest a whole lot easier over all this if he got his own comparable spell at Club Fed.

    I won’t be surprised at all if once the smoke clears on all this, whether or not the appeal is successful, that McDonnell does things with the remainder of his life right in line with the character and level of service he displayed before, which led to that outpouring of support in those letters, etc.

    • I too heard about Wilder’s testimony and agree that the prosecutors are not particularly bright if they – chose – to cross-examine Wilder.. especially so in that kind of venue.

      having said that – there is nothing new about how prosecutors “turn” those who are vulnerable to prosecution into witnesses FOR the prosecution.

      Anyone who has watched even as few as half a dozen episodes of “Law and Order” or just watched other corruption trials – KNOW this is the way it works – and that would include Wilder and McDonnell…

      that’s what prosecutors do – and that’s why we have a Witness Protection program for mobsters who turn on their bosses!

      so the question is – when did you start opposing this technique ?

      when McDonnell was convicted or before?

      😉

      I’ve always been conflicted by this technique especially after seeing some found innocent later for the state witness – lying – but my concerns are long-standing and did not suddenly pop-up with McDonnell.

      How many real crooks would have not been convicted if we did not use this technique?

  4. Heaven help me if I judge the legal system based on what I see on “Law and Order” episodes or old episodes of “LA Law.” That’s like forming an opinion of the CIA by watching “Chuck.” You continue to worry me, Larry.

    I don’t have a problem with making deals with the little fish in order to catch the big fish. But even in those cases the deal should be a lesser sentence, or a suspended sentence, not a free pass. In mob cases, where the witness really is putting his or her life in danger by testifying, then I’m fine with a free pass an witness protection.

    In this case, Williams got a free pass and if my opinion qualifies as an equally big fish. He got a get out of jail card for a whole lot more sins than these.

    • Steve – it’s not only on TV. It’s in the paper all the time that prosecutors routinely offer get-out-of-jail cards to people who will help convict someone else.

      ” I don’t have a problem with making deals with the little fish in order to catch the big fish. But even in those cases the deal should be a lesser sentence, or a suspended sentence, not a free pass. In mob cases, where the witness really is putting his or her life in danger by testifying, then I’m fine with a free pass an witness protection.”

      so now you’re the judge and jury?

      “In this case, Williams got a free pass and if my opinion qualifies as an equally big fish. He got a get out of jail card for a whole lot more sins than these.”

      but let’s be clear here. Is your view – longstanding before McDonnell ?

      Mine is that McDonnell got caught up in a typical prosecutor tactic – one that has sent countless people to jail for 20, 30 years over a simple one-time drug selling offense.

      all things considered – all the people who have got drawn up into the legal system – and sent away for decades – some of them totally innocent – McDonnell got off with a “ding”.

      Anyone with the deep legal knowledge of Virginia Law that McDonnell had – should have served him well to not to stupid stuff.

      sorry – the man knew better – he gambled – and he got whacked

      next case please..

  5. Steve –

    McDonnell was AG as well as a competent lawyer himself. He was an elected legislator who undoubtedly knew the ins and outs of Virginia and Federal ethics laws. He was well aware of what happened to Phil Hamilton and Duke Cunningham for whom he worked.

    He had 20-some folks – high powered folks on his “defense” team. He was living a life that few people can enjoy – much less many of the guys now sitting in prison for decades – for non-violent but dumb petty street crimes?

    the poor black teenager schmuck that got whacked by police in a petty drug sale gets one overworked public defender – before he is usually summarily flushed into prison for 20-40 years….. McDonnell has mega advantages.

    I have a real hard time getting all worked up over McDonnell’s two-year “ding” even though I have sympathy for him because he was a legitimate leader as Gov and did govern effectively – but he showed insanely poor judgement on this – and one must wonder what other decisions he made might have been subject to the same judgement flaws.

    and really – after all this crap about the Judge being biased – he should thank his lucky stars the Judge is really a fair guy and not some jerk who could have easily followed the sentencing guidelines without a qualm… and stuck it to him.

    and even after all of this – McDonnell is STILL appealing…

    he may YET get off scott free!

    come on Steve – agree with me !!!

  6. This is the third time that a legislator who was a member of the Republican Caucus during my tenure as their staff person has been convicted of a felony. On a personal level I was much closer to Phil Hamilton than I am to McDonnell or Bob Russell, but on a professional level I’ve had far more dealings with McDonnell because of his length of service and his time as Governor. In each of the three cases the individuals showed incredibly poor judgment and I cannot disagree with the convictions. In Hamilton’s case, I was also convinced that the other parties to the transaction also deserved some punishment. The people at ODU actually got what they wanted (unlike Williams!)

    I’m proud to have worked with all three, to have helped all three actually win elections. I’m glad each got their chance to serve in the legislature, and all three made valuable contributions. Then they screwed up and paid severely for it. I can throw no stones in this world — I’m so happy so many others like you are without sin.

    • Perhaps – unreasonably – I think the elected deserve more severe punishment than their bribers… I’m already not happy with the way other money that flows is “legal” nor that some elected play too near to those boundaries.

      Then every now and then we get a glimpse into how some agencies like the Tobacco Commission REALLY work .. and after awhile ordinary people start to think only a tiny percentage actually get caught and even fewer actually get real consequences and most of the others are swarmy…

      Bill Howell – NEVER had an HONEST conversation with voters about the gas tax – .. it was largely a behind closed doors effort as much of the legislation seems to be in Richmond these days.

      I’d never KNOW what the H E L L is going on in Richmond during the session if it were not for a young and talented fellow named Joaquith who, virtually by himself created Sunlight and Va. Decoded – almost in spite of the General Assembly who spent millions on a bad system while trying to discourage him. Then with Va Decoded, again, despite the lack of cooperation from the GA – and now those who do use it – realize just what a rats nest the Virginia Code is – without any motivation what-so-ever from the legislators to fix it. Oh.. and add VPAP … another thing that succeeded in spite of the General Assembly who also had no interest in real and timely disclosure of money.

      sorry I got off on a rant here but I simply do not hold the General Assembly in very high regard … it’s run like it does not believe it should be accountable ….

      and now we’re going to see how they do with redistricting and … my hopes are not high..

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