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Virginia's ex-governor was just sentenced to two years in prison

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

  1. On Tuesday, Virginia's former governor, Bob McDonnell, was sentenced to two years in prison.
  2. This comes after McDonnell's conviction last fall on 11 counts of corruption. His wife, Maureen, was also convicted on 8 corruption counts, and her sentence will be handed down in February.
  3. He'll start serving his sentence on February 9, but he plans to appeal.

Here's some background on the McDonnell case:

Who is Bob McDonnell?

McDonnell served as the governor of Virginia from January 2010 to January 2014. His political career started in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he served 15 years. In 2005, he was elected Attorney General for the state, edging out his opponent Creigh Deeds by a mere 323 votes. Four years later, McDonnell ran for governor and bested Deeds again, campaigning on a "Bob's for Jobs" platform and overcoming criticisms about his socially conservative views.

While McDonnell was initially viewed as a future presidential contender, a blockbuster March 2013 investigative report from the Washington Post's Rosalind Helderman and Laura Vozzella put those hopes in serious doubt. The reporters revealed that businessman Jonnie Williams paid for $15,000 of catering at McDonnell's daughter's wedding, and chronicled the efforts of the first couple to help Williams' company. A federal criminal investigation was underway, and it turned up evidence of many more undisclosed gifts. In January 2014, only days after leaving office, McDonnell and his wife were each indicted on 13 counts, 11 of which were corruption charges.

Why was McDonnell indicted and convicted?

The investigation focused on the McDonnell family's relationship with Williams, who was then the CEO of supplement company Star Scientific. During McDonnell's governorship, his family received from Williams $120,000 in loans, $15,000 for the catering bill at his daughter's wedding, $18,000 for a shopping trip for Maureen in New York City, and $6,500 for a Rolex that Maureen requested for the governor. They also enjoyed the use of Williams' vacation home, his Ferrari, and his membership at an expensive golf course. None of this is illegal in itself, since politicians can accept unlimited gifts from personal friends underVirginia's famously lax ethics laws.

What was criminal, prosecutors alleged, was that the McDonnells used the office of the governor to benefit Williams' company. Specifically, McDonnell repeatedly contacted state officials on behalf of the company, which was attempting to drum up funding for tests of its supplement products. The McDonnells also invited Williams to several events at the governor's mansion. Emails showed McDonnell contacting a staffer about a Star Scientific-related matter just minutes after discussing his loan with Williams.

So the McDonnells were each indicted on four counts related to "honest services" statutes — meaning that Virginia was deprived of the honest services of its governor's office — and seven counts of "obtaining property under color of official right," relating to the money and gifts they got from Williams. They were also charged with not disclosing loans from Williams when applying for bank loans, and Maureen was charged with obstruction of an official proceeding.

What was the McDonnells' defense?

Bob McDonnell admitted to knowing about most of the loans and gifts. He also admitted to taking actions intended to help Williams' company. But he argued that there was nothing corrupt about that, since he took similar actions on behalf of many other Virginia businesses. He pointed out that he never directly sought any money for Williams' company from the Virginia government, and argued that the officials he contacted about the company didn't give it any special treatment.

McDonnell also argued that he couldn't have plotted a "conspiracy" with Maureen to help Williams' company in exchange for loans and gifts, because their marriage was falling apart at the time. His lawyers also argued that Maureen had a close emotional relationship with Williams (though not a physical affair). Maureen's lawyers said that she attempted to promote Williams' company because she truly believed in its health benefits.

The jury didn't buy it. After three days of deliberation, it unanimously convicted McDonnell of all 11 corruption counts. Maureen was convicted of 8 counts of corruption, and the obstruction of justice count (a conviction that was later overturned). In January 2015, McDonnell has been sentenced to 2 years in prison, which is lower than the more than 10 years prosecutors recommended.

What's next?

Now that McDonnell has been sentenced — and will start serving his time on February 9 — Maureen's sentencing will be handed down on February 20. The McDonnells are certain to appeal the convictions, and some observers think McDonnell might have a shot at getting some or all of the convictions overturned. "It all turns on what counts as official acts and corruption under the law," writes Professor Rick Hasen of the UC-Irvine School of Law. "There are vagueness and First Amendment issues lurking here. The big fight will be in the 4th Circuit."