RICHMOND, Va. >> Family members and friends wept softly as former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told the judge at his sentencing hearing that he couldn’t "fathom any deeper humiliation" for taking bribes from a wealthy businessman to promote a dietary supplement.
Then, the tears mostly stopped. Some even turned to smiles when the judge sentenced McDonnell to two years in prison — far below the 10 years prosecutors originally wanted for the Republican, who was once on the short list to be Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate.
McDonnell, who held his head in his hands and sobbed when he was convicted in September on 11 counts of corruption, was stoic as U.S. District Judge James Spencer delivered the sentence in a courtroom packed with the former governor’s supporters.
McDonnell had asked for no jail time, only community service. In a strong but somber voice, McDonnell told the judge he was "a heartbroken and humbled man" and that he holds himself accountable.
"I allowed my life to get way out of balance," he said. "I cannot fathom any deeper humiliation for me or my family."
The judge noted the outpouring of support for McDonnell — more than 400 people wrote letters — and concluded that "he is a good and decent man who has done a lot of good in the public area."
"It breaks my heart, but I have a duty I can’t avoid," the judge said.
A jury in September found McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of public corruption. The couple accepted gifts including a $6,500 engraved Rolex watch, $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories, and free family vacations in exchange for promoting a purported miracle cure made by Star Scientific Inc.
Maureen McDonnell, who attended Tuesday’s hearing, will be sentenced Feb. 20 on eight counts.
The company’s former CEO, Jonnie Williams, testified under immunity as the prosecution’s star witness in a case that exposed the details of the McDonnells’ shaky finances and troubled marriage.
Outside the courthouse, McDonnell thanked the judge for mercy and vowed to fight his convictions on appeal.
"I’ve hurt myself, my family and my beloved people of Virginia and for that I am deeply, deeply sorry. But I will also say to the great people of Virginia that I have never, ever betrayed my sacred oath of office in any way while I served as the governor of this great commonwealth," McDonnell told reporters.
Law enforcement officials said that the prison sentence delivered a message.
"No elected official, irrespective of their popularity or the power they wield, is above the law," FBI agent Adam S. Lee said.
Before sentencing, defense lawyers called a parade of character witnesses to enumerate McDonnell’s good qualities — his integrity and compassion for the less fortunate in particular — and good deeds in both public and private life.
Several witnesses said a lenient sentence was warranted because McDonnell had already suffered significantly from the fallout of a highly public and embarrassing investigation and trial. Former Democratic Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said that if not for McDonnell’s legal troubles, he would be remembered as one of Virginia’s finest governors and would be a strong candidate for president.
"He’s been punished, been punished indelibly," said Wilder.
Wilder received a loud round of applause after sparring with prosecutor Michael Dry and pointing out that Williams "walked away clean."
Dry said Williams was in a different category.
"The Mr. Williamses of the world are a dime a dozen. Corrupt governors are not," Dry said.
At trial, McDonnell acknowledged he accepted Williams’ largesse but said he did nothing for him in return other than extend routine political courtesies.
McDonnell is the first Virginia governor, and the 12th nationally, convicted of corruption, federal officials said. Others include Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, who is serving 14 years for a scheme to sell President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat; Edwin Edwards of Louisiana, who was sentenced to 10 years for extorting money from casino license applicants; and Arch Moore of West Virginia, who got nearly six years for extorting money from a coal operator and other offenses. Some have escaped jail time altogether.
The public corruption case in Virginia prompted the General Assembly to tighten the state’s murky ethics laws, and some Virginia elected officials have voluntarily limited the value of gifts they will accept.
McDonnell, 60, delivered the 2010 Republican response to the State of the Union Address and became chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2011. He was indicted 10 days after leaving the office.
At trial, the McDonnells’ defense strategy depended in large part on convincing the jury that their marriage was so strained that they could not have conspired to squeeze bribes out of Williams. They arrived at and left the courthouse separately every day and rarely even glanced at each other as they sat separated by lawyers at the defense table.