By KRISTY JU
A federal jury found former Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife guilty of accepting $177,000 worth of luxury vacations, gifts and sweetheart loans from a businessman in a nefarious exchange for promoting his company.
McDonnell, a Republican once viewed as a contender for presidential candidacy, was convicted of 11 out of the 14 counts he faced. His wife, Maureen McDonnell, was convicted of eight of the 13 counts she faced, plus one additional count of obstruction of justice.
The jury acquitted the McDonnells for failure to disclose loans from Jonnie Williams Sr., former CEO of the dietary supplements company Star Scientific Inc., in a loan application.
Gasps and sobs from family members filled the courtroom after the repeated word “guilty” was read, according to Reuters.
“This involves a lot more than just the damage to the reputations of the governor and Maureen McDonnell,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs. “This shatters families.”
During the trial, there were 67 witnesses over five weeks of court proceedings. The star witness of the prosecution was Williams.
He was granted immunity from public corruption charges in exchange for complying with investigators and prosecutors to testify about his business relations with the McDonnell family.
Prosecutors argued that the McDonnells conspired to use the prestige of the governor’s office to promote Star Scientific and Anatabloc, the company’s main product.
“In essence, McDonnell provided special access to Williams,” said Kelly Kramer, an attorney at the Washington office of Mayer Brown.
The defense argued that the McDonnells’ 38-year marriage was so riddled with marital troubles that they could not have conspired together with Williams.
Last December, prosecutors offered McDonnell a plea bargain in which the former governor would plead guilty to just one felony fraud charge of lying to a bank. His wife would avoid charges entirely.
He declined the plea bargain, refusing to plead guilty to a crime he claimed he did not commit, according to the Washington Post.
If he had pled guilty in December, he would have faced a sentence ranging from probation to three years in prison. This potential sentence puts into perspective the extraordinary outcome of the case, in which the couple now faces up to 30 years in prison, according to the Associated Press.
As the McDonnells’ story unraveled, the trial gripped the nation as citizens learned more of the tainted image of the former governor.
“[McDonnell] had solid support from Christian conservatives. He had a record of accomplishment as governor with his transportation bill, and he had an ability to connect with moderate voters, said Farnsworth. “He had as good a set of circumstances as anybody for potentially running [for president] in 2016, before he met Johnnie Williams.”
Law officials declared that justice had been served, according to the Washington Post.
“This was just a difficult and disappointing day for the Commonwealth and its citizens,” said Dana J. Boente, U.S. Attorney. “Public service frequently requires sacrifice and almost always requires financial sacrifice. When public officials turn to financial gain in exchange for official acts, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.”
Sentencing is scheduled for Jan.6. Until then, defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill told reporters that the former governor would appeal. The former first lady, too, would appeal, according to William Burck, an attorney for Maureen McDonnell.
Looking ahead, Farnsworth believes the verdict will affect ethics laws in Virginia.
“Perhaps the main consequence of the McDonnell guilty verdict is the renewed pressure of tightening of some of these state laws,” said Farnsworth. “Federal law is clear about what the violations are. Virginia notoriously has relatively loose laws with respect to disclosure, not only for family members, but for elected officials themselves.”
“It’s in the politicians’ best interest to have tighter laws, because the lack of clear prohibitions creates gray areas where law makers can get into trouble,” he continued.
Ben Hermerding, senior political science major and president of Young Democrats said, “I think we should definitely pass laws that crack down on any type of monetary gain from politics. There should be stiff consequences for people who break those rules.”
Reaching across the aisle, both parties view the outcome of this case as an opportunity to enact more stringent disclosure laws for public officials in Virgina.
Nicole Tardif, senior political science and business administration double major and chairman of College Republicans, said, “The verdict will undoubtedly be overturned, but until then, it is the General Assembly’s job to redefine ethics laws in Virginia.”
House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, both Republicans, wrote in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed that a higher standard for public officials must be set to rebuild trust in state government.
“With last Thursday’s verdict, the need to restore the public’s confidence has increased exponentially,” Howell and Norment wrote. “Although the reforms enacted earlier this year were meaningful and substantive, and were approved without a single dissenting vote in both chambers and in both parties, they are no longer sufficient in meeting the expectations of the people of Virginia. A higher standard having been set, we must meet it.”
Howell and Norment promised to continue in working toward restoring the broken trust in state government.
“With that in mind, and as leaders of the majority party in the House and Senate, we pledge today to the people of Virginia to take the additional steps necessary to rebuild the trust and confidence we ask of you.”