By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell will remain free pending his appeal of conviction on 11 federal corruption charges, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Monday.
McDonnell, a Republican, had been scheduled to report to prison on Feb. 9 to begin serving a two-year sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge James Spencer.
The former governor and his wife, Maureen, were found guilty in September of accepting $177,000 in gifts and loans from dietary supplement entrepreneur Jonnie Williams Sr. in exchange for promoting his company's main product.
The ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said McDonnell was unlikely to flee or be a threat to the community if he was released.
McDonnell, who also is a former Virginia attorney general, will remain free while he pursues his appeal, the court said. Prosecutors had vigorously opposed his release.
The court’s ruling said McDonnell's appeal “raises a substantial question of law” that if decided in his favor could warrant a reversal of his convictions or a new trial.
McDonnell’s attorneys have asserted that he did not exercise any “official act” to help Williams, and that prosecutors had overreached by trying to define such an act broadly.
The court has scheduled oral arguments in the case on May 12.
McDonnell, 60, was once mentioned as a potential Republican vice presidential candidate and left office in January 2014.
Maureen McDonnell, the former first lady, is due to be sentenced on eight corruption convictions on Feb. 20.
(Reporting by Gary Robertson; Editing by Ian Simpson, Grant McCool and Bill Trott)