In today's news I read a report about the sentencing of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. I had followed that trial as it unfolded, if by followed I mean read about in a casual way. The attorneys for the governor and for his estranged wife faced a daunting task. A fair bit of evidence existed to tie them to receipt of gifts and benefits from a man with a curious pharmaceutal company. The whole thing was bad to the point of tacky.
Their lawyers had to come up with a defense. They chose two related but disparate strategies. Each put the other on trial a bit, and tried to recast the whole sordid affair as a different, love- triangle sort of sordid affair. The hope was that the resulting confusion would work to their benefit with the jury. Though the lawyers for the spouses ended up finger-pointing at one another, I suspected the lawyers actually coordinated to some extent.
The second thread was that curious "they may have given me stuff and thought they were buying me, but I did not give them anything" defense. "I can't be bought", the ex-governor seems to say, "if I never gave you anything to your money".
The effort did not succeed at the trial court level. The ex-governor got convicted on eleven counts and his estranged wife got convicted on nine counts. Today the federal judge sentenced the ex-governor. He imposed a sentence below the guidelines, sentencing McDonnell to two years' imprisonment.
Federal sentences do not feature the "good time" credit of state court sentences, meaning that one sentenced to two years in prison serves nearly two years. So two year in a prison is not a walk in the park. Further, my visit in the course of my work to a minimum-security federal prison dispelled for me te country-club stereotype. Still, two years was a short sentence.
I compared this with another recent sentencing. Ouchita County, Arkansas Judge
Mike Hesterley pleaded guilty to a one-count corruption charge. The benefit he allegedly received was a fraction of that allegedly received by the governor and his wife. Yet the county judge's sentence was 33 months.The sentencing guidelines for McDonnell suggested at least a six year sentence was in order.
The Virginia case apparently involved a lot of letters to the judge on behalf of the ex-governor. The judge pronounced that McDonnell had a "good heart". The defendant expressed his remorse and promised to devote the rest of his life to doing good.
The whole thing is curious to me. First, let me say that ex-governor McDonnell has his right to appeal. I do not know what the appeal will determine. Federal "honest services" convictions are always thorny things.
But McDonnell was not an innocent or unsophisticated man. He had been his state's attorney general at one point--running on a law and order platform. He had also been one to trumpet his "family values" and "born-again" virtues.
After the sentencing, McDonnell expressed his confidence in the justice system, and in Jesus Christ. I am a firm believer in judges having discretion, and in avoiding cookie-cutter sentencing. But I was left wondering about "holy", "born-again" men, human folly and the disparity of consequences for misconduct between corrupt politicans and ordinary, everyday folks. Perhaps the judge found the ex-governor's foolishness so palpable as to mitigate his crimes.
For his part, the ex-governor said " I would also say to the great people of Virginia that I have never, ever betrayed my sacred oath of office in any way while I have served as the governor of this great commonwealth.” I find his flair for the colorful turn of phrase uncowed by the protestations of humility he provided to the Court. But that is the way that politicians work.