Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell was sentenced to one year and one day in prison on corruption charges Friday in the case that ruined her husband's political career.
U.S. District Judge James Spencer also ordered two years of supervised release after serving her sentence.
Spencer said former Gov. Bob McDonnell's defense strategy at trial was to throw his wife under the bus. At sentencing, she was thrown under the train.
"I started a chain of events that brought embarrassment on us all," she said.
Maureen McDonnell's defense told the judge she maintains her innocence and not all mistakes are criminal, but she tearfully apologized to the people of Virginia.
"I’m the one who allowed the serpent into the mansion, and the venom has poisoned my marriage, my family and the commonwealth that I love," she said. "I am the one who opened the door, and I blame no one but myself."
But the prosecution said she knew what she was doing, calling it "opportunistic greed."
McDonnell's lawyers had asked the judge to spare her jail time and give her probation and community service instead, arguing in court papers the highly public humiliation she endured during the trial was punishment enough. For more than a month, she quietly listened as witnesses portrayed her as a hostile and rapacious governor's wife whose greed led to her husband's downfall as well as her own.
“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 shattered.”
"Mrs. McDonnell has lived the worst nightmare of a public official's spouse: Vilified in the media and blamed not only for ruining her husband's political career, but for sending him to prison,'' defense attorneys wrote in their sentencing recommendation to Spencer, the same judge who last month sentenced former Gov. McDonnell to two years in prison.
The 25-page brief described how Maureen McDonnell dedicated her life to her five children and supporting her husband's political aspirations before cracking under pressure and her fear of failure.
Spencer told McDonnell she had "a downward spiral in sync with the governor's rise in politics."
Prosecutors drew a less sympathetic portrait, noting "the degree to which the defendant unhesitatingly participated in the scheme to sell the governor's office to satisfy her desire for a luxurious lifestyle.''
At sentencing Friday, the prosecution said a prison sentence was necessary to deter corruption. They conceded Maureen McDonnell deserves less prison time than her husband because she was not an elected official and was convicted of just eight counts, three fewer than the former governor.
"But because Mrs. McDonnell was a full participant in a bribery scheme that sold the governor's office in exchange for luxury goods and sweetheart loans, many of which she solicited personally, and because she repeatedly attempted to thwart the investigation through false representations, it would be unjust for her not to serve a period of incarceration for her crimes,'' prosecutors wrote.
They recommended a sentence of 18 months. Maureen McDonnell's lawyers said they were pleased the judge ordered a shorter sentence, but they do intend to appeal. She will remain free on bond through the appeal process.
“The 4th Circuit has already found substantial issues for appeal that could overturn this verdict, and we intend to file an appeal and pursue those issues vigorously,” lawyer Randy Singer said. “We still believe in Maureen’s innocence and we intend to seek her complete vindication.”
The extra day could actually benefit Maureen McDonnell. The Washington Post reported federal inmates with sentences longer than a year can have their sentences reduced 54 days a year for good behavior. Had the sentence been only a year, McDonnell would not be eligible for the reduced sentence.
Bob McDonnell, who was widely considered a potential Mitt Romney running mate before the scandal broke, was in court Friday to support his wife, twice kissing her on the cheek. He also is free on bond while he appeals his convictions to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I've been a lawyer for 25 years, and sometimes juries get it wrong," former Gov. McDonnell said as he left the courthouse. "And I believe with all my heart that they got it wrong in this case."
Before Maureen McDonnell spoke in court Friday, eight character witnesses testified that she is a thoughtful woman devoted to her family, but she was overwhelmed by her role as first lady, depressed and filled with anxiety.
Friend Lisa Kratz Thomas said Maureen has barely left her house since she was convicted in September and has little social interaction outside of a Bible study.
“She's lost her dignity,” Thomas said. “She's really become a prisoner in her own home.”
Daughter Rachel McDonnell said the scandal surrounding her parents has driven her family apart and that her mother feels “very alone.”
According to scholars and research conducted by The Associated Press, first spouses of other states 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. None, however, has confronted the prospect of a prison term for a felony conviction.
More recently, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, faced questions over whether she was personally enriched by the relationship. Neither has been charged.
A jury in September convicted the McDonnells of doing favors for former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for more than $170,000 in gifts and low-interest loans. The gifts included about $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories Williams purchased for Maureen McDonnell during a Manhattan shopping spree and an engraved $6,500 Rolex watch she gave to Bob McDonnell as a Christmas present. Williams also paid for vacations and golf outings.
Williams testified under immunity as the government's star witness, disputing Bob McDonnell's testimony that they had been friends and saying he plied the former first couple with money and gifts only to get their help promoting his company's nutritional supplements.
During the six-week trial, defense attorneys tried to show that the McDonnells' marriage was so strained that they were barely communicating and could not have conspired to solicit bribes. Bob McDonnell testified in his own defense, saying he began staying at the office later than necessary to avoid his wife's angry outbursts. Other witnesses described Maureen McDonnell's vitriol toward Executive Mansion staff members. Her former top aide acknowledged calling her a "nutbag.''
Spencer called the case “puzzling and bizarre,” saying there appeared to be two Maureen McDonnells — the loving mother and devoted wife and the first lady “who belittled and terrorized employees” at the Executive Mansion.
“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.
Spencer surprised most legal experts by giving Bob McDonnell a sentence well below the 10 years sought by prosecutors. Chuck James, a Richmond white-collar defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who watched much of the trial, said a lighter sentence for Maureen McDonnell was likely because she was not an elected official and, unlike her husband, is not a lawyer well versed in bribery law.
Spencer said he'll recommend the McDonnells serve their sentences in federal prisons "in close proximity to home," but a U.S. Bureau of Prisons official told the News4 I-Team there's no guarantee they can accommodate.
"Bureau of Prisons weighs carefully the judge's recommendation for an offender's place of incarceration," the officials said. "However, a number of factors impact designation to a federal prison, to include things such as the level of security and supervision an inmate requires, programing and medical/mental health needs, proximity to the inmate's release residence (to facilitate the maintenance of family and community ties), and population management considerations due to crowding throughout the federal system."
There is a federal prison in Petersburg.
The third of nine children of an FBI agent, Maureen McDonnell became a Washington Redskins cheerleader in the early 1970s. She met her husband-to-be in 1973, when he was attending Notre Dame on an ROTC scholarship, and they were married in 1976.