Photo Credit: Steve Helber, AP
This afternoon, the long-running saga of Robert McDonnell came to what may be the end (not counting appeals) when the former Virginia Governor was sentenced to serve two years in prison after a jury convicted him of bribery while in office. As with many cases, this one has lessons to teach for those of us who carefully follow sentencing advocacy in federal criminal cases.
One lesson that we have observed before – but is worth repeating – is how powerful it can be to present a sentencing judge with written or spoken testimonials about the otherwise good character of the defendant. In the presentence report, the Probation Department had recommended an advisory sentencing range under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines of more than ten years, though the judge concluded that the proper advisory range was 6-1/2 to 8 years. But the defense presented some 440 letters in support of the former Governor, as well as live testimony from a number of witnesses. Even the Assistant United States Attorney, who asked for a harsh sentence to be imposed on Mr. McDonnell, conceded that the letters and testimony were moving.
That, of course, is the point: When a criminal defendant – especially one convicted by a jury that rejected his testimony – comes before a judge for sentencing, all that the judge knows about him is that he has committed a crime. Letters and testimony help the defense to present the judge with a three dimensional human being, and facilitate the judge’s fuller consideration of the imposition of a fair and just sentence. In the case of Rajat Gupta, Judge Jed Rakoff was moved by the letters of hundreds of supporters to sentence him to a two-year sentence despite prosecutors’ calls for a sentence of ten years in prison. Here, Judge James Spencer was likewise motivated by evidence of Mr. McDonnell’s character to find that a sentence of eight years “would be unfair, it would be ridiculous, under these facts.”
But there is also a second lesson to be learned from Mr. McDonnell’s sentencing, and it is also one that is often repeated: No one is above the law, and indeed, we may hold our public officials to a higher moral standard in their conduct. Judge Spencer’s comments at sentencing reflected this view: “A price must be paid,” he said. “Unlike Pontius Pilate, I can’t wash my hands of it all. A meaningful sentence must be imposed.” For that reason, among others, Judge Spencer rejected defense lawyers’ calls for a non-incarceration sentence that they had suggested, which could have included thousands of hours of community service.
The media coverage of this week’s announcement that federal prosecutors have charged former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, with illegally accepting gifts from a wealthy Richmond area businessman have largely focused on what the Commonwealth’s first family may have given in return. To be sure, the question of whether and how these gifts corrupted the state government is an important one, and the effect on a man once considered a potential 2016 Presidential candidate is a significant political story.
But the story of how the allegations against Governor McDonnell first surfaced is also a cautionary tale about the vulnerabilities that can lead prosecutors to the evidence they need to bring down rich and powerful people. During his tenure at the Virginia gubernatorial mansion, chef Todd Schneider kept records and photographs of a variety of things he viewed as suspicious. When Schneider was accused of wrongdoing involving his outside catering company’s relationship with the state – allegations that proved to be unfounded – Schneider revealed to prosecutors all of the documents and photographs he had that suggested corruption on the part of the Governor and his family. The indictments announced this week are the product, at least in part, of that treasure trove of carefully preserved incriminating evidence.
The defense in this case will likely be that gifts were accepted but no favors were granted in exchange, and that may be a winning strategy but there is also a lesson here. Corporate officers and public officials need to understand that, when they engage in behavior that comes close to crossing the line between proper and improper, their acts need to be explained and not kept private. They also need to understand that leaders are often judged by and held to a higher standard of conduct. From the mail room on up, employees expect the most from their leaders. Anything less than that may look suspicious and can literally turn into a federal case.
This saga is by no means the first in which a lowly employee who is discharged or accused of wrongdoing becomes a whistleblower that leads to headline-grabbing criminal charges against a company or a political figure. But it is a good reminder that those who cut corners or even commit crimes in organizations are vulnerable to the evidence collected by others in that organization.