Former Virginia Gov.
McDonnell became the first Virginia governor to be charged with a serious crime and — barring a successful appeal — will be the first to go to jail.
The sentence was substantially lower than many expected. Prosecutors had asked the judge for a sentence of 10 to 12 years.
U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer said he was moved by the hours of tearful testimony supporting McDonnell, who was governor from 2010 to 2014.
Former Virginia Gov.
But the praise was not enough for Spencer to give McDonnell a sentence of community service, as defense attorneys had requested.
"A meaningful sentence must be imposed," the judge concluded.
"This entire case has been tragic from beginning to end," Spencer said. "All the grace and mercy I can muster — it cannot cover it all. It breaks my heart."
McDonnell, 60, thanked the judge "for the mercy he dispensed," and said he was "deeply, deeply sorry."
He described himself as "a heartbroken and humbled man."
Still, he vowed to file an appeal by Wednesday.
"I am a fallen human being," McDonnell said outside the courthouse. "I have failed at times with some of the judgments that I have made…. But I would also say to the great people of Virginia that I have never, ever betrayed my sacred oath of office."
McDonnell was told to report to prison Feb. 9.
In September, a jury found McDonnell guilty of 11 public corruption charges involving $177,000 in gifts or loans from health supplement salesman Jonnie R. Williams to McDonnell, his wife and his children. The gifts included golf clubs, vacations, the use of a boat and a Ferrari, and $25,000 in wedding presents for two of the couple's daughters.
There was no proof that skeptical state officials had done anything to actually help Williams, but the jury decided it was enough that McDonnell and his staff sent emails seeking state-led studies for Williams' products and held two promotional events for Williams at the governor's mansion.
Prosecutors refused to comment on the sentence, but hailed the guilty verdict.
"As governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Robert McDonnell violated the public's trust and tarnished the highest office in state government," said U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente.
McDonnell's wife, Maureen, who had a close friendship with Williams and was also convicted in the case, surprised onlookers by showing up for the sentencing despite the couple's estrangement. She is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
The McDonnells have been living mostly apart since before the trial began. Part of their defense was that they could not have conspired together to defraud the state because their marriage was irreparably broken. The jury, which was shown pictures of the couple holding hands on their way to pretrial hearings, rejected that argument.
The trial appears to have divided the McDonnell family, which includes five children. One of their daughters, Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky, a former U.S. Army officer in Iraq, wrote Spencer to say that the judge should go easy on her father because what happened was mostly her mother's fault.
Travis Fain and Davis Ress of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., contributed to this report.