RICHMOND, Va. — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife were convicted Thursday of taking bribes to promote a dietary supplement in a corruption case that derailed the career of the onetime rising Republican star and laid bare the couple’s broken marriage.
A federal jury in Richmond convicted Bob McDonnell of 11 of the 13 counts he faced; Maureen McDonnell was convicted of nine of the 13 counts she faced. Both bowed their heads and wept as the court clerk read a chorus of “guilty” verdicts.
Widely considered a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign, McDonnell was reduced to living with the family’s priest in a church rectory during the trial. Now he and his wife face up to 20 years in prison for each conspiracy, fraud and bribery conviction. Sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 6.
The couple’s defense strategy depended in large part on persuading jurors that their marriage itself was a fraud and that they were unable to speak to each other, let alone conspire to accept bribes. They left the courtroom separately — first Bob and then Maureen, who hugged one of her daughters and wept loudly on the way out.
Bob McDonnell was ashen as he was mobbed by TV cameras before climbing into a waiting blue Mercedes.
“All I can say is that my trust remains in the Lord,” he said quietly.
The couple was convicted on nearly all the counts involving doing favors for wealthy vitamin executive Jonnie Williams in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans that they admitted taking.
Maureen McDonnell also was convicted of obstructing justice after the scandal broke, by returning a designer gown Williams had bought for her during a New York shopping trip, along with a handwritten note that tried to diminish its value by suggesting they had agreed Williams could give the dress to his daughters or to charity. That conviction also carries a potential 20-year term.
Jurors acquitted them of bank fraud on loan applications that failed to mention the money Williams lent them.
The former governor, his head in his hands, began crying as soon as he heard the first sob from his daughter Cailin. Other family members and supporters followed suit. The weeping became louder, and McDonnell’s sobbing grew more intense, with each succeeding finding of guilt.
Testifying in his own defense, McDonnell insisted that he provided nothing more than routine political courtesies to the former CEO of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based dietary supplements company. His wife’s lawyers, meanwhile, said Williams preyed on her vulnerability after she developed a “crush” on the businessman.
Maureen McDonnell did not take the stand even as her private life was exposed, with staff from the governor’s mansion and aides testifying that her erratic behavior risked becoming a political embarrassment.
The jurors all declined to speak to reporters as they left the courthouse through a back door.
“I just want to go home,” one of them said.
McDonnell’s attorney, Henry Asbill, said he will appeal. Maureen McDonnell’s attorney, William Burck, declined comment.
Asbill said he was shocked, surprised and disappointed. He complained that prosecutors sought to criminalize routine political behavior, and said “I have no idea what the jury deliberated about.”
Williams, who testified under immunity, said he spent freely on the McDonnells to secure their help promoting his tobacco-derived anti-inflammatory supplement Anatabloc as a treatment for ulcers, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. Williams declined to comment on the verdicts, his attorney said.
His gifts included nearly $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories for Maureen McDonnell, a $6,500 engraved Rolex watch for Bob, $15,000 in catering for their daughter Cailin’s wedding, free family vacations and golf outings for their boys. Williams also provided three loans totaling $120,000.
As the gifts rolled in, the McDonnells appeared at promotional events and even hosted a launch luncheon for Anatabloc at the governor’s mansion. Williams and his associates also were allowed into a reception for Virginia health care leaders at the mansion, and McDonnell arranged meetings with state health officials as Williams sought state money and the credibility of Virginia’s universities for research that would support Anatabloc.
Defense lawyers argued that none of these were favors for bribes, because the governor didn’t consider the favors to be anything special, the research grant applications were never submitted, and being first lady isn’t an official position.
If she’s not a public official and the couple weren’t speaking, there was no conspiracy, they said.
Witnesses — including the former governor himself — said Maureen McDonnell despised being first lady, and was prone to such angry outbursts that the mansion staff threatened a mass resignation. McDonnell said he began working unnecessarily late, just to avoid her anger.
While they initially showed up at the courthouse hand-in-hand, they split up once the judge refused to try them separately, and the former governor testified that they were living apart during the trial.
If Maureen McDonnell was portrayed as erratic, the powerful and straight-arrow image her politician husband fostered didn’t fare much better. The defense introduced a September 2011 email from McDonnell to his wife lamenting the deterioration of their marriage, complaining about her “fiery anger” and begging her to work with him to repair the relationship.
While several witnesses described the first lady’s relationship with Williams as inappropriate and flirtatious, none suggested it was physical, and Williams testified that his dealings with both McDonnells were all business.
Prosecutors said the McDonnells turned to Williams in desperation because they were grappling with $90,000 in credit card debt and annual losses of $40,000 to $60,000 on family-owned vacation rentals in Virginia Beach. Williams said he wrote the first $50,000 check to Maureen after she complained about their money troubles and offered to help his company.
Virginia has among the nation’s weakest political ethics laws, and McDonnell repeatedly stressed that he did nothing to violate them. But this case was federal, and both prosecutors and FBI officials said the verdicts send a message that state laws provide no shelter from corruption prosecutions.
Virginia’s current Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats who were elected as the scandal developed, have imposed strict gift bans and ethics policies on their own staff, and called for tougher rules than the ethics reform that passed the Republican-controlled legislature this summer.
“We have a long way to go to restore the public’s trust,” Herring said in a statement. “It should be crystal clear that the people of Virginia deserve real ethics reform.”