Ex-Va. first lady gets prison term of a year and a day
By Matt Zapotosky
RICHMOND — Maureen McDonnell was sentenced Friday to a year and a day in federal prison after an emotional, hours-long hearing in which the former first lady of Virginia apologized publicly for the first time since she and her husband were accused of public corruption.
Reading from a prepared statement — her voice breaking — McDonnell acknowledged that she “started a chain of events that would bring embarrassment and pain on us all.” She said she had waited for the day when she could break her silence and asked U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer for mercy.
“Your honor, the cry of my heart is that I am sorry,” she said. “I blame no one but myself.”
Afterward, McDonnell embraced her husband, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), and he kissed her on the cheek. They left the courthouse separately; she made no comments, while he continued to assert their innocence.
“Sometimes juries get it wrong, and I believe with all my heart that the jury got it wrong in this case,” he said. “I look forward to aggressively pursuing this appeal.”
The McDonnells, both 60, were found guilty last year of conspiring to promote businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.’s dietary supplement in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods. The case marked the first time in history a former Virginia governor or first lady was convicted of a crime.
Robert McDonnell was sentenced last month to two years in prison and has been allowed to remain free on bond while he appeals the case. Spencer allowed Maureen McDonnell, too, to remain free during her appeal.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit is scheduled to hear arguments in Robert McDonnell’s case in May; the outcome almost certainly will affect the former first lady.
The legal process — which drew national attention — has been a painful one for the McDonnell family, but perhaps most acutely for its matriarch. Defense attorneys argued that the McDonnells’ marriage was broken and that the former first lady had developed something of a crush on Williams. They portrayed her as at times deceitful, at other times tyrannical, and often the driver of wrongdoing. Maureen McDonnell became close to Williams before her husband did, and she was the one who solicited some of the case’s most memorable gifts, including a New York City luxury clothing shopping spree and a Rolex watch for the governor.
Staffers who worked in the governor’s mansion said Maureen McDonnell was an intolerable boss; one acknowledged referring to her as a “nut bag.” Robert McDonnell testified that his wife ignored an entreaty to save their marriage. The McDonnells began living apart before the trial and are still doing so. They were indicted days after Robert McDonnell left office in 2013.
“It’s hard for me to imagine anything worse than what I’ve already endured,” Maureen McDonnell said during the sentencing.
At Friday’s hearing, eight witnesses painted an entirely different portrait of the former first lady.
This Maureen McDonnell was a kindhearted, generous person who cared above all about helping her husband succeed and building a strong family. She wanted to use her time as first lady to help others, particularly military families, but she was deeply uncomfortable with the public role and often anxious and overwhelmed.
“She didn’t want to let Bob down. She didn’t want to disappoint him,” said Mary Guy, a longtime friend who said that even as a young woman, McDonnell’s greatest ambition was to be a wife and mother.
“Houses, things, jewelry — they were never important to her,” Guy said. “If you ask me what I think she’s lost, she’s lost her life’s work.”
Rachel McDonnell, the couple’s daughter, said she learned about hard work from her mother, who had three part-time jobs when Rachel was an infant and Robert McDonnell was in law school. She said that her mother had not wanted her to testify but that she insisted on doing so to talk about her mother’s good traits.
Friends and family packed several rows of the federal courthouse in Richmond to show support for the former first lady, but the courtroom was noticeably less full than when the former governor was sentenced last month.
Then, supporters had formed a long line stretching down the seventh-floor hallway well before the hearing began, and even some close friends were relegated to an overflow room. All five of the couple’s children attended their father’s sentencing. Three attended their mother’s. Oldest daughter Jeanine Zubowsky, who gave birth to the couple’s first grandchild just weeks ago, did not attend. Nor did Sean McDonnell, one of their twin sons.
Lisa Kratz Thomas, a close friend who runs a program helping prisoners reenter society, said Maureen McDonnell has been humiliated by the events of the past year and rarely leaves her home. “She’s lost her dignity,” Thomas said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber argued that a prison sentence was required to show a skeptical public that corrupt politicians — and those who assist them — will be dealt with seriously. She said that Maureen McDonnell repeatedly asked Williams for money and gifts over two years.
“This was not a mistake. This was not a one-time lapse in judgment,” she said. “This was a crime of opportunistic greed.”
Before announcing a sentence, Spencer mused at length about the trial and the dual portraits of Maureen McDonnell that he was forced to reconcile. On one hand, he said, McDonnell was a loving mother and wife who made significant accomplishments as first lady. On the other hand, he said, some of the unflattering portrayals of her were not inaccurate.
“It’s difficult to get to the heart of who Mrs. McDonnell truly is,” Spencer said.
Spencer also highlighted the defense’s trial tactic of putting responsibility on the former first lady. That strategy, if successful, might have resulted in acquittals for her and her husband. Maureen McDonnell is not considered a public official, meaning if jurors thought she alone had a relationship with Williams, they probably would not have been able to convict anyone.
Spencer called that defense “curious” and termed it, “Let’s throw mama under the bus.” He also noted some family members’ efforts to pin responsibility on Maureen McDonnell during her husband’s sentencing, calling those sentiments, “Let’s throw mama off the train.”
Maureen McDonnell, though, did not shy from taking blame. She thanked Spencer for showing mercy on her husband — who had similarly asked the judge to show leniency to his wife — and referred, in particular, to a comment the judge made about her letting a “serpent” into the governor’s mansion.
“That is true, and the venom from that snake has poisoned my marriage, has poisoned my family and has poisoned the commonwealth that I love,” Maureen McDonnell said.
Defense attorneys asked that Maureen McDonnell be sentenced to probation and 4,000 hours of community service; prosecutors wanted a sentence of 18 months. The year-and-a-day term allows her to get 54 days knocked off for good behavior.
Randy Singer, Maureen McDonnell’s attorney, said that she, like her husband, would appeal. “We still believe in Maureen’s innocence, and we intend to seek her complete vindication,” he said.
Still, prosecutors, at least, hailed Friday’s outcome as a sort of conclusion to the case.
“Today’s sentencing brings to an end an unfortunate chapter in Virginia state government,” U.S. Attorney Dana Boente said, “and an opportunity to move forward here in the commonwealth.”