Jan 26, 3:09 PM EST

Court: Ex-Virginia Gov. McDonnell will be free during appeal


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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell will remain free while he appeals his corruption convictions, a federal court ruled Monday.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said McDonnell's appeal raises a substantial question of law or fact that "if decided in favor of the accused" is "important enough" to warrant reversal or a new trial.

The court also said McDonnell isn't a flight risk or a danger to others and that the appeal isn't just a delay tactic. It ordered that briefs in the case be filed by March 2 and set a May 12 hearing.

McDonnell's two-year prison term was set to begin Feb. 9 after a jury last year found McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of illegally accepting more than $165,000 in gifts including a Rolex watch, designer clothing, vacations and loans from wealthy vitamin entrepreneur Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his products.

Williams testified under immunity as the prosecution's star witness in a case that exposed the details of the McDonnells' shaky finances and troubled marriage. McDonnell testified in his own defense during the six-week trial, acknowledging that he accepted Williams' largesse but did nothing for him in return other than extend routine political courtesies. He was convicted of 11 counts.

Prosecutors originally sought a sentence of more than 10 years for McDonnell, whose lawyers recommended three years of community service.

McDonnell's attorneys asked the court to allow him to remain free on bail while he appeals, arguing that the appeal could take almost as long as the sentence itself and would raise substantial questions, including whether the government's interpretation of an "official act" is correct. Federal prosecutors opposed the request, saying the appeal isn't strong and that McDonnell's claim that the judge defined an "official act" too broadly isn't likely to result in a reversal of his convictions.

Last week, the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board announced it would suspend McDonnell's law license beginning Thursday, citing his felony public corruption convictions. He was directed to appear before the disciplinary panel Feb. 20 to show cause why his license should not be further suspended or revoked. According to the bar, McDonnell's license also was administratively suspended for nonpayment of dues to the organization since Oct. 15.

Maureen McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 20.

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Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .

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