Judge debated sentence for ‘a good and decent man’

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires
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AP Photo/Steve Helber

An altar boy, Boy Scout, by-the-book kind of guy.  A man you would want your sister to marry.

Those were some of the descriptions of Bob McDonnell offered by a stream of character witnesses during the sentencing portion of his federal corruption trial last month.

So how does a man with those attributes — a former Army officer, law firm partner, delegate to the General Assembly, attorney general and governor of Virginia, end up convicted on 11 counts of corruption for selling the influence of his office to a wealthy businessman in exchange for $177,000 in gifts and loans?

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer couldn’t answer that question, although he had pondered on it mightily.  Spencer sentenced McDonnell to two years in prison but not before providing a powerful and human glimpse into the deliberations that led to his decision. 

“We come once again to what is indeed our most difficult task, deciding what is an appropriate sentence for another human being …” said Spencer to a packed courtroom that was as silent as snow.  People sat on the edge of their seats, straining to hear his every word.

While federal guidelines could have brought a sentence of as much as eight years, Spencer said that much time would have been “ridiculous under these facts.”

He noted that “hundreds of letters were filed in this case, and I have read every single one of them.” The portrait that emerged: “That he is a good and decent man.’’ 

“I have great sympathy for this family,” the judge said. “… No one wants to see a former governor of this great commonwealth in this kind of trouble.”

Yet, the jury found an intent to defraud. “This is a serious offense that all the grace and mercy that I can muster, it cannot cover it all,” the judge said. “A price must be paid, and that is some level of punishment. It breaks my heart, but I have a duty and responsibility, which I cannot avoid. Unlike Pontius Pilate, I can’t wash my hands of it all.   A meaningful sentence must be imposed.’’

In his nearly 29 years on the bench, Spencer said he has asked himself many times: “Why do good people end up in this courtroom, good people end up being found guilty of doing bad things? … Obviously, a man that could engender this kind of support, his friends adore him, his family, they love him. Why would you take these kinds of chances?”

Despite the show of sympathy, though, Spencer made clear that McDonnell had been given “a full and fair opportunity to be heard.”  During a six-week trial in September, Spencer said McDonnell’s defense team put on “a rigorous and multi-pronged defense” — a defense, the judge said, that tended to assess blame to others for McDonnell’s’ predicament.  The finger was pointed at everyone from the U.S. Justice Department and the Virginia State Police for being “too zealous in pursuing their prosecution,” to the governor’s own wife and co-defendant, Maureen McDonnell, who was portrayed during the trial as the person who got the family entangled with businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

“Mr. McDonnell got all the process that was due him. Whether or not you prevailed is not how you determine if a trial is fair,” Spencer said. (McDonnell is appealing his conviction.)

The judge praised the jury, who he said gave up nearly seven weeks of their lives to perform what he termed as “the pinnacle of public service.” 

The judge did not comment on one theme raised by the defense during its closing arguments: two kinds of justice. During his testimony as a character witness at the hearing, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder drew applause when he noted that Williams, got to “walk away” after prosecutors granted him broad immunity in exchange for testimony against McDonnell.

In closing remarks, defense attorney John Brownlee said Williams had been given immunity not once, but twice: in the corruption trial against the McDonnells and in a separate, unrelated federal investigation into alleged securities fraud involving Williams and his company, known at the time as Star Scientific Inc.  “He’s sitting at home in his condo in Florida,” said Brownlee.  

The prosecution’s lead attorney took that comparison to task. “Jonnie Williams admitted to wrongdoing and cooperated with the government,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry. “No one elected Jonnie Williams to anything.” In other words, he didn’t breach the public trust.
No one will ever elect Bob McDonnell — once on the short list for America’s vice president — to anything again, either.  A fallen man, by his own words.  A ruined life.  At its heart, the McDonnell case is a poignant reminder of life’s toils and snares and the need, especially for publicly elected officials, to resist corrupting influences. No matter one’s opinion on Judge Spencer’s sentence,  it shows that politicians are not above the law, no matter how “good” they were before their fall.

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