January 6, 2015 / 11:05 AM / in 4 years

Virginia ex-governor gets two years in prison for corruption

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell was sentenced on Tuesday to two years in federal prison and two years of probation for taking a bribe from a businessman seeking to promote a dietary supplement.

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell is surrounded by members of the media after his sentencing hearing in Richmond, Virginia January 6, 2015. REUTERS/Jay Westcott

McDonnell, the first Virginia governor to be convicted of bribe-taking, received a shorter sentence than that sought by prosecutors for accepting sweetheart loans and lavish gifts from entrepreneur Jonnie Williams.

McDonnell, once a rising star in the Republican Party, was convicted in September along with his estranged wife, Maureen, after a five-week trial that laid bare rifts in their marriage and marred Virginia’s reputation for clean government. McDonnell left office in January 2014.

“No one wants to see the governor of Virginia in this kind of trouble,” U.S. District Judge James Spencer said before imposing sentence in a packed courtroom. “It breaks my heart, but a meaningful sentence must be imposed.”

McDonnell, 60, was ordered to report to prison on Feb. 9. Defense attorneys asked that he be sent to a facility in Petersburg, Virginia, so he could be close to his family.

McDonnell appealed to Spencer for mercy, saying: “I’ve admitted I am a sinner with many, many failures.” After sentencing, McDonnell told reporters the conviction would be appealed.

Spencer cited McDonnell’s military record and numerous letters he had received on his behalf in imposing the sentence. Eleven character witnesses testified for McDonnell, including former Democratic Governor L. Douglas Wilder.

Prosecutors had sought a 10- to 12-year prison term under advisory federal sentencing guidelines. McDonnell’s lawyers had sought a community service sentence instead of prison time.

Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement the sentence would help restore the integrity of the governor’s office while affirming the commitment to prosecute officials who commit crimes.

A jury found McDonnell guilty of 11 charges of public corruption in September. He and his wife were charged with receiving $177,000 in loans and gifts from Williams, the chief executive of Star Scientific Inc, in exchange for promoting his company’s main product, the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc.

Gifts included a $6,500 Rolex watch, wedding and engagement presents, money for McDonnell’s daughters, and golf outings and equipment.

Williams, who was granted immunity in exchange for testifying for the prosecution, provided a $50,000 loan and a $15,000 “gift” to cover wedding expenses for McDonnell’s daughter. He also gave a $70,000 loan to a corporation that the governor and his sister used to manage beach properties.

Maureen McDonnell, 60, was convicted of nine counts, but Spencer dismissed the obstruction of justice charge last month. She is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 20.

After the trial, state lawmakers and Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe moved to tighten ethics rules in a bid to restore Virginia’s reputation.

“As we put this period behind us, I look forward to working with Virginia leaders on both sides of the aisle to restore public trust in our government,” McAuliffe said in a statement.

Reporting by Gary Robertson; Writing by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott, Will Dunham, Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney

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