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From Designer Clothes to Orange Robes

February 21, 2015

Maureen McDonnell arrives at the federal courthouse. (Photo by Cameron Vigliano)

Maureen McDonnell arrives at the federal courthouse. (Photo by Cameron Vigliano)

By Kevin Lata and Lyndsey Raynor
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A remorseful Maureen McDonnell stood Friday in a federal courtroom where she had been convicted of taking bribes and asked a judge for leniency. He responded by sentencing the former first lady to 12 months and one day in prison.

“I would ask in your sentence today that you consider the punishment I’ve already received,” the former first lady said, holding back tears and referring to the humiliation she has received in the media and the deterioration of her personal relationships.

“My marriage is broken, my family is hurting and my reputation is in tatters.”

Throughout the bribery scandal involving former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell has been cast in a dark light by the media and others. She had been blamed for allowing a “serpent” into her home – the businessman Jonnie Williams, who showered the McDonnells with loans and gifts in exchange for their promoting his company’s health products.

On Friday, Maureen McDonnell took responsibility in her first statement on the corruption case.

“I am the one that opened the door, and I blame no one but myself,” she said.

U.S. District Court Judge James Spencer said that even with all the information he had, he did not know who the real Maureen McDonnell is. He summed up the case as “tragic, sad and puzzling.”

The hundreds of written letters on her behalf, as well as witnesses and documents, point to a woman with two sides: one kind and loving – and the other cruel and vindictive.

This duality was exemplified by the testimony of Elizabeth Mancano, the former policy liaison for the first lady of Virginia. She signed a letter written by the FLOVA staff that demanded the end of the horrible treatment dished out by Maureen McDonnell. The letter said her staff members would get a sick feeling whenever they saw her name on their caller ID.

In court, though, Mancano’s testimony did not hint at that abuse. She lavished praise on the former first lady, saying that “overall it was a fantastic experience.”

All of the eight witnesses attested to the quality of Maureen McDonnell’s character. They said the anxiety and pressure of being first lady had an incapacitating effect on her.

Lisa Thomas, a good friend who has known Maureen McDonnell since 2005, said she is passionate, resilient and honest. But through the whole ordeal, Thomas said, Maureen has struggled.

“One of the most heartbreaking things is, she’s lost her dignity,” Thomas said. “You can only punish a person so much before that punishment starts to invade who they are.”

James Michael Burke was hired to help the McDonnells in October 2011. Burke, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, is the director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Performance Management Group, a consulting service that works with individuals and organizations. He said Maureen McDonnell was “very often overwhelmed and fearful of disappointing Bob, her team and the people she served.”

Maureen’s anxiety took its toll on those around her – especially her family and the staff at the Executive Mansion. On Feb. 1, 2012, Burke met with Bob McDonnell and recommended that the first lady move out of the mansion because of the stress. Burke added, “She expected herself to go above and beyond what most people could accomplish.”

Defense Attorney Randy Singer called Maureen McDonnell “a fundamentally good woman.”

“As Judge Spencer said, she loved her family; she gave everything for her family. She loved this commonwealth, and she issued a heartfelt apology,” Singer said. “She made mistakes. She owned the mistakes she made.”

As punishment for her offenses, Maureen McDonnell and her defense attorneys sought two years of probation, during which she would perform 4,000 hours of community service with a local nonprofit.

Early in February, the defense filed court papers asking that Maureen McDonnell be spared incarceration pending an appeal. Spencer granted the motion on Friday. Maureen McDonnell plans to appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond.

“The 4th Circuit has already found substantial issues for appeal that could overturn this verdict,” Singer said. “We intend to file an appeal and pursue those issues vigorously. We still believe in Maureen’s innocence, and we intend to seek her complete vindication.”

Prosecutors recommended that Maureen McDonnell be sentenced to 18 months in prison; they said this would deter others from lying in the public eye. (Bob McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison; he also is appealing.)

In his sentence, Spencer sided more with the prosecution than with the defense. He apparently wasn’t swayed by the testimony from such witnesses as the McDonnells’ daughter, Rachel.

Rachel McDonnell said it had been difficult for her mother to transition into the role of first lady. But she described her mother as a “remarkably loving and caring person with a big heart.” She said that her mom is a simple person whose dream life is spending time at home with her family wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt.

Evidence in the case showed that the McDonnells received at least $177,000 in loans and gifts from Williams, then the CEO of Star Scientific Inc. For example, in 2011, Williams took Maureen McDonnell on a shopping spree in New York, where she spent $19,289 of his money on designer clothes, purses and other accessories.

At her sentencing, witnesses said Maureen McDonnell did not know she was breaking the law by taking gifts from Williams. They said she is not a lawyer and not well versed in bribery law.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber offered a description of Maureen McDonnell’s behavior that stood in contrast to the humbling character testimony given by witnesses.

Aber said Maureen McDonnell might have been humiliated but it is her fault. Although McDonnell had only a high school education and no legal training, she was not absolved from moral or legal responsibility, Aber said.

She said Maureen McDonnell’s conduct was driven by an “opportunistic greed” and was made “conscious decision by conscious decision.”