DON GONYEA, HOST:
Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, made separate exits from a federal courthouse in Richmond yesterday afternoon after a jury convicted them on corruption charges. The McDonnells accepted more than $170,000 in gifts and loans from a businessman who sought and got the governor's help. Now they could be heading to prison. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The trial ran nearly six weeks with 67 witnesses. It was at a federal courthouse three blocks from the governor's mansion, where Robert and Maureen McDonnell had lived for four years. After the verdict, U.S. Attorney Dana Boente sounded almost regretful.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
U.S. ATTORNEY DANA BOENTE: When public officials turn to financial gain in exchange for official acts, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.
OVERBY: That's from Hampton Roads TV station WAVY. As for choices, the McDonnells had rejected one last winter - a plea deal. The governor, just leaving office, would plead to one felony, no charges for his wife. Instead, a jury convicted him on 11 of 13 charges. Maureen McDonnell was convicted on 9 of 13 counts. Here's some of what they got, according to documents and testimony - a Rolex watch and golf outings for him, designer dresses for her, loans for themselves and a family business - also gifts for their children, including a $15,000 check for catering a daughter's wedding. Their benefactor was Johnnie Williams, Sr., a businessman eager to sell the McDonnells and the state government on a dietary supplement his company was making. Governor McDonnell tried to interest state officials in the product. This week, just before the jury began deliberating, prosecutors got a big break. Federal District Judge James Spencer instructed the jury to follow an expansive definition of what constituted an official act. That definition is often a point of heated debate. Randall Eliason is a former federal prosecutor handling corruption cases in Washington, D.C. He says the defense lawyers often contend their clients are doing only an inconsequential part of their duties.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RANDALL ELIASON: Like, say the president receiving a championship sports team at the White House or something like that - that that would not qualify as an official act because he's not really deciding anything or taking any particular action.
OVERBY: Spencer rejected that limited definition, so things like a promotional party held for Williams at the governor's mansion were considered to be, as the indictment put it, promoting and legitimizing Williams' product. If that ruling was a win for the prosecution, the defense lawyers lost on their basic strategy. They presented Robert McDonnell as almost a bystander. Maureen McDonnell was said to be sweet on Johnnie Williams and at odds with her husband as she toiled to promote the supplement. Under that argument, the McDonnells weren't close enough to conspire about anything. Some outsiders called it a Lady Macbeth defense, or...
BARBARA VAN GELDER: The, take my wife, Johnnie; seriously, take my wife, defense.
OVERBY: This is defense attorney Barbara Van Gelder. She has long experience doing public corruption cases. She says the McDonnell lawyers must have carefully vetted the plan.
VAN GELDER: Nobody does a case of this consequence without a mock jury.
OVERBY: That is a test panel put together to try out the defense arguments. The McDonnells wept as the verdict was read. Robert McDonnell is the first governor in Virginia's long history to be convicted of a crime. His lawyer, Hank Asbill, told reporters, this fight is a long way from over. Sentencing is set for January, 2015. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
GONYEA: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.