The best possible result

Published 9:56 pm Friday, January 9, 2015

For anyone who has ever wanted to be a judge, the sentencing of former governor Bob McDonnell on corruption charges offers a case in point about just how hard that job can be.

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer sentenced McDonnell to 24 months for accepting gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific Inc., in exchange for lending the support of the governor’s office for marketing the company’s dietary supplements.

McDonnell and his family received vacations, loans, expensive clothing, rounds of golf at exclusive country clubs, an infamous Rolex watch and more — about $177,000 worth of goodies, according to government estimates — and in return, Williams was given extraordinary access to the first family and to the resources the McDonnells could throw behind the promotion of Anatabloc, Star Scientific’s spotlight diet supplement.

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Considering the sometimes sordid testimony of last year’s trial, a defense strategy that appeared to sacrifice First Lady Maureen McDonnell’s dignity for a chance at her husband’s acquittal and enough physical evidence to fill the back of a limo headed for a Madison Avenue shopping spree, the jury’s guilty verdict was always likely to be the easy part of the trial.

What would be much harder would be a careful and considered approach to sentencing that recognized the need to punish McDonnell, set an example that would serve as a deterrent to potential future corrupt politicians, honor the office of governor of the commonwealth, acknowledge the hundreds of statements of support the court had received on the former governor’s behalf from people of all political persuasions and provide justice equitable to that which had been dispensed in other similar recent trials.

Federal sentencing guidelines had provided for a maximum of eight years, and prosecutors had asked for 78 months. The defense, on the other hand, had sought for McDonnell to be assigned 6,000 hours of community service, which he might have served with Operation Blessing or the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.

Judge Spencer took the unusual step of explaining the reasoning behind his decision, though none of the points he made were likely to have swayed the partisans on both sides who had already made up their own minds about the appropriate sentence. Some still came away believing McDonnell should have avoided prison time, and others thought the judge should have given him the maximum time allowed under the statute.

In the end, Judge Spencer made a tough decision that somehow feels both inadequate and sufficient at the same time. Surely Bob McDonnell deserves a greater punishment than he received as the first governor in Virginia history to be indicted or convicted of a felony. But on the other hand, his punishment will be sufficient to ensure McDonnell’s political and professional careers are over, that he will have to pursue some radically different line of work when he leaves prison and that future politicians will think twice before trading their status for cash and favors.

That’s a hard balance to have reached, and it shows an intentional thoughtfulness on the part of the presiding judge. Nobody had reason to celebrate Tuesday’s decision, but nobody had a reason to protest it, either. In the final analysis, that probably was about the best result Judge Spencer could have achieved.