RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's pension benefits can be taken away based on a law he signed while governor, according to a legal opinion issued Friday by Attorney General Mark Herring.
A jury in September found McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of doing favors for former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans. The couple have been sentenced to prison but are currently free on appeals.
When he was governor, McDonnell signed into law a 2011 provision that strips government officials of their pensions if they are convicted of felony misconduct while in office.
The law has never been interpreted by any Virginia court and Herring's legal opinion attempts to clarify how the process is supposed to work. The legal opinion was requested by current Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Herring's opinion said McAuliffe, as governor, is considered McDonnell's "employer" for purposes of the 2011 law and has the responsibility to initiate proceedings to cancel the pension benefits or can delegate that authority to someone else.
The attorney general also said McDonnell is currently considered a convicted felon under state law and his appeals do not affect that status. The governor unsuccessfully tried to appeal his conviction with a three-judge panel from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year and recently asked for the entire appeals court to hear his case. Herring's opinion notes that the Virginia Retirement System can reinstate pension benefits if a conviction is overturned.
Brian Coy, a spokesman for McAuliffe, said the governor was waiting on Herring's opinion before taking action on McDonnell's pension.
"We will be pursing the process that the code enumerates now that we've got this opinion," Coy said.
The law provides that McDonnell be given an "opportunity to be heard" prior to the state making a final decision on his benefits. A lawyer for the governor did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Individual pension benefits are not public record, and it's not clear exactly what McDonnell was in line to receive. But his many years of state service, including as a House of Delegates member and as attorney general, as well as a high salary as governor — $175,000 a year — likely mean that McDonnell would take a substantial financial hit if is pension is ultimately canceled. Herring's legal opinion also said that the law applies to all retirement benefits, including those for spouses and children.
The 2011 law was spurred by the corruption conviction of former Del. Phil Hamilton, who was sentenced that year to nearly a decade in prison for soliciting a job at Old Dominion University that he helped create with taxpayer money.