Abramoff’s Advice for Virginia’s New Jailhouse Guv

The Do’s and Don’ts of prison life from two former power brokers who know.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Whatever you do, don’t work for the warden.

Bob Ney should know. The disgraced former congressman spent 17 months in prison for corruption due to his involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Abramoff himself spent four years behind bars. He says former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell needs to be honest and accept responsibility—even for things that might not have reached the level of illegality.

In another world, America’s political class would be chattering about McDonnell’s prospects in the 2016 presidential election. But instead, they’re talking about how he’ll handle his prison time.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the onetime lawmaker will spend two years in prison, following a conviction on federal corruption charges.

It could have been worse. Prosecutors wanted him to spend at least 10 years behind bars.

Ney and Abramoff’s advice for McDonnell begins immediately after the sentencing.

1) Forget the lawyers

Jettison your lawyers as a source of prison-yard guidance, Abramoff said.

“The attorneys don’t know much about what happens to a defendant after sentencing, but be careful to get someone who is not just trying to milk you for money to give you advice,” Abramoff said.

For someone who is used to being an executive, McDonnell will feel like he’s “going into a foreign planet,” Ney said. Though McDonnell had spent time in the military rising to be a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, the degree of control prison officials have over his life will still be a shock.

“[In] the prison system they tell you when you eat, when you have a break, what you’ll do, where you can go, where you can’t go—it’s very, very structured and so that’s the management. And he may get some grief from the management, warden and down the line,” Ney said.

2) Be a man of the people

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

McDonnell’s career in politics can still serve him, even as he serves time for political misdeeds.

“He has to really stay on the down low, he has to make sure that he blends in,” Ney told the Beast. “He’s a politician so he should use his political skills of dealing with different types of people.”

Abramoff echoed this, advising the former governor to be “friendly to all. Almost everyone there will be a decent person and treat you well. There are exceptions, but the best thing to do is stay away from them.”

3) Don’t work for the warden—you’re not above your fellow inmates

McDonnell shouldn’t be tempted if he’s given the opportunity to work with prison management.

“People like the governor [are sometimes] offered jobs up in the warden’s office,” Ney said. “Don’t take it. Whatever you do, don’t take that job. Work somewhere else amongst the other inmates.”

Abramoff said that the governor needed to remember to “be humble.”

“The administration is going to be watching you and will want to make an example of you if you come off as entitled or above the rules,” Abramoff said.

Ney warned McDonnell—a former Virginia state legislator, attorney general, and governor—may find his past career could land him in hot water inside the prison walls.

“I remember a guy pointed at me and said, ‘Are you the congressman?’ and I said ‘Well, I used to be.’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, you passed the law that put me in here,’” Ney recalled.

“He’ll meet people in prison he signed laws for, maybe stiffer drug sentences, and now he’s the law breaker so he’ll get some chiding over that,” the former congressman said.

4) How to handle family grief over his imprisonment

On Tuesday, the judge presiding over McDonnell’s case heard hours of testimony, the most compelling of which came from members of the former Virginia governor’s closest family members.

“This is a terrible time for them and I wish I didn’t know what they were enduring, but unfortunately I do. The only words of comfort I can add are that they have entered the final phase of the pain,” Abramoff said. “You will have your beloved father back sooner than you think, and you can visit and communicate with him all the while.”

Ney said McDonnell needs to “keep a stiff lip” and stay in close contact with family members.

“There’s life after prison, there’s life after politics… you come back and you are with your family again,” Ney said. “First of all he has to realize [is] that he’s not his job.”

5) Life after prison: Rehabilitation takes honesty

Both Ney and Abramoff have reentered the public spotlight following their sentences, writing books about their experiences.

“The most important thing he can do is accept responsibility for things of the past, including things that may not have been illegal, but were certainly not how our public servants should act,” Abramoff told The Daily Beast. “What matters is being honest, humble, and a faithful and loyal friend, father and member of your community.”

Ney, who following his imprisonment took a position in talk radio, said McDonnell “needs to do something to give back you know he can reintegrate into society.”