RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The judge who sentenced former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell to prison for one year for corruption said Friday he struggled with the appropriate punishment and ultimately adopted the view of a couple who sent a letter of support describing “two Maureens.”
The letter portrayed her as a loving mother and devoted wife once known for kindness and grace who later became a first lady who “belittled and terrorized employees” at the Executive Mansion and threw tantrums when she didn’t get her way, U.S. District Judge James Spencer said.
“Even with all the information I have, it’s difficult to get to the heart of who Mrs. McDonnell is,” Spencer said.
The former first lady and former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell were convicted in September of accepting $165,000 in bribes from a businessman. He was sentenced last month to two years in prison. The couple is free on bond while they appeal the convictions.
It was a remarkable fall for the former first couple. Maureen McDonnell was a onetime Washington Redskins cheerleader who was known for her work with military families. Her father was in the Marines and her husband was in the Army. Bob McDonnell was a former state attorney general who became chairman of the Republican Governors Association and he was widely considered a possible Mitt Romney running mate before the scandal broke.
A six-week jury trial exposed details of the McDonnells’ strained marriage, and detailed the loans and gifts they took from former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his company’s nutritional supplements.
The gifts included about $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories for Maureen McDonnell and a $6,500 engraved Rolex watch she gave her husband for Christmas.
“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.
Fighting back tears, Maureen McDonnell apologized to her family and Virginians.
“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.”
At Bob McDonnell’s sentencing last month, Spencer described Williams — who testified under immunity for the prosecution — as a “serpent” that Maureen let into the Executive Mansion. Maureen McDonnell, who according to her lawyer had developed a “crush” on Williams, said Spencer was right.
“The venom from that snake has poisoned my marriage, has poisoned my family and has poisoned the commonwealth that I love,” she said. “I opened the door, and I blame no one but myself.”
Maureen McDonnell is believed to be the only modern-day first lady convicted on felony charges arising from her occupancy in an executive mansion, according to scholars and research conducted by The Associated Press. First ladies 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 confronted the prospect of a prison term for a felony conviction.
The sentence was less than the 18 months sought by prosecutors. Defense attorneys had asked for probation and 4,000 hours of community service.
There was one day tacked onto the term, which is significant because in the federal system, defendants sentenced to more than a year can shave up to 15 percent off their prison time for good behavior. That means McDonnell could serve just a little over 10 months.
“Although we’re disappointed that she has received a sentenced of incarceration, we are very happy that the judge gave her a sentence that was lower than what the government sought and what the sentencing guidelines would have provided for,” defense attorney William Burck told reporters.
McDonnell did not speak as she left the courthouse. Her husband said he appreciated Spencer’s mercy but insisted he and his wife are innocent.
“I’ve been a lawyer for 25 years and sometimes juries get it wrong, and I believe with all my heart that they got it wrong in this case,” the former governor said.
Eight character witnesses testified for Maureen McDonnell, most of them describing her as a good-hearted woman who cracked under the crushing anxiety of public speaking and other duties that she did not feel qualified to perform.
“One of the most heartbreaking things is she’s lost her dignity,” said friend Lisa Katz Thomas. “You can only punish a person so much before that punishment starts to invade who they are.”
She said McDonnell has barely left her house since she was convicted last September and has little social interaction outside of a Bible study.
“She’s really become a prisoner in her own home,” she said.