WASHINGTON - Federal prosecutors told Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell last week that he and his wife would be charged in connection with a gift scandal, but senior Justice Department officials delayed the decision after the McDonnells' attorneys made a face-to-face appeal in Washington, according to people familiar with the case.

Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, told the McDonnells' legal teams that he planned to ask a grand jury to return an indictment no later than this past Monday, people familiar with the conversations said.

The governor and his wife, Maureen, would have been charged with working together to illegally promote a struggling dietary-supplement company in exchange for gifts and loans from its chief executive, the people said.

The plan to seek the felony charges this week changed after attorneys for the state's first couple met with Deputy Attorney General James Cole on Dec. 12, sources said.

Doubts on a witness

The attorneys argued that the governor had done nothing improper to assist businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. In particular, they focused on the credibility of a key witness, said a person familiar with the presentation. They argued that if prosecutors proceeded with charges, they should wait until after McDonnell left office Jan. 11, to allow a smooth transition to Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe.

On Friday, the day after the meeting, McDonnell's attorneys were told that the decision would be put on hold, the people said. A final decision about whether to press charges is now not expected before Jan. 2, and could come as late as February, they said.

Jason Miyares, a spokesman for McDonnell's legal team, and William A. Burck, an attorney for McDonnell's wife, declined to comment. Boente and a spokesman for the Justice Department also declined to comment. McDonnell has maintained that he has done nothing wrong.

Very rare

It is not unusual that a high-profile target, especially a sitting governor, would be allowed a chance to appeal a U.S. attorney's charging decision to top officials of the Justice Department. It would be very rare, however, for the Justice Department to ultimately overturn a decision made by a U.S. attorney.

Prosecutors have been investigating the McDonnells' relationship with Williams for most of this year. Williams provided more than $165,000 in gifts and loans to the governor and his family.

McDonnell has apologized for the relationship but insisted he treated Star as he would have any other Virginia-based business. The company received no state grants, contracts or board appointments.