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Virginia ex-governor, wife found guilty in corruption trial

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND Va. (Reuters) - A federal jury on Thursday found former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife guilty of accepting sweetheart loans and lavish gifts from a businessman in exchange for promoting his company.

McDonnell, a Republican once seen as a potential presidential candidate, was found guilty of 11 of 14 charges in U.S. District Court. His wife, Maureen, was convicted of nine of 14 counts, including obstruction of justice.

McDonnell, who left office in January, stood with his head bowed as the verdict was read. The repeated word "guilty" brought gasps and wails from the packed courtroom, and family members burst into tears.

The jury of seven men and five women deliberated more than 17 hours. The couple face up to 20 years in prison and at least $250,000 in fines for each count. Sentencing by U.S. District Judge James Spencer is scheduled for Jan. 6.

McDonnell's attorney, Henry Asbill, told reporters the verdict would be appealed.

Prosecutors charged that McDonnell and his wife received $177,000 in loans and gifts from dietary supplement entrepreneur Jonnie Williams Sr. in exchange for promoting his company's main product, the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc. The couple have been living separately during the trial and say they are estranged.

After the decision, McDonnell and his wife, both 60, huddled with weeping family members in the courtroom. The ashen-faced couple left the courthouse separately, with the former first lady wiping away tears. They declined to talk to reporters.

During the five-week trial, prosecutors contended McDonnell and his wife conspired to use the governor's office to promote Williams' company, Star Scientific Inc, and Anatabloc.

Prosecutors said McDonnell introduced the company to Virginia health officials and staged a launch of Anatabloc at the governor's mansion. He also suggested to state universities that they conduct studies related to the products, the prosecution said.

Prosecutors alleged "in essence, that McDonnell provided special access to Williams," said Kelly Kramer, an attorney at the Washington office of Mayer Brown.

The "conviction illustrates the danger public officials face when they accept lavish gifts from donors - even when gifts aren't tied to traditional official acts," he said, such as agreeing to sponsor legislation or award a government contract.

The gifts to the couple included a $6,500 Rolex watch, wedding and engagement presents, money for McDonnell's daughters, and golf outings and equipment.

Williams provided a $50,000 loan and a $15,000 "gift" to cover wedding expenses. He also gave a $70,000 loan to a corporation that the governor and his sister used to manage beach properties, according to the indictment.

'SAD DAY FOR VIRGINIA'

The trial laid bare the McDonnells' 38-year marriage, with defense attorneys arguing it was so corroded they could not have conspired together with Williams. Witnesses portrayed Maureen McDonnell as a volatile first lady who yelled at aides.

In a statement, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, said the verdict showed the need for ethics reform in the state. He urged state lawmakers to implement gift bans that he and Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe had imposed on their offices.

Adam Lee, the special agent in charge for the FBI's Richmond office, told reporters: "We will engage, and engage vigorously, to any credible allegation of corruption."

The verdict brought an expression of sympathy for the McDonnells from U.S. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia.

"The jury has spoken. This is a sad day for Virginia," Warner said in a statement. "I have known and worked with Bob McDonnell for more than 20 years, and my thoughts today are with Bob, Maureen, and their children."

(Reporting by Gary Robertson; Editing by Ian Simpson, Eric Beech and Peter Cooney)

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