Two children of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell say his stunning downfall and conviction on public corruption charges can largely be attributed to the corrosive effects of just one person: Their mother.

Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky and Cailin Young wrote in blunt - and at times scathing - letters to a federal judge that it was former first lady Maureen McDonnell's materialism and mental-health issues that derailed the rising political career of her husband. The letters of support for Robert McDonnell were part of a trove of 440 submitted by his attorneys, who are seeking leniency at his Jan. 6 sentencing.

"My mom . . . has always been concerned about getting discounts or freebees," McDonnell Zubowsky wrote. "She hid her coordination with people for free or discounted things or services and she didn't communicate with my dad because she knew he would not approve. . . . Testimony about my mom was not just part of a defense strategy . . . but unfortunately, was the reality."

Private struggle

Both daughters echoed themes that emerged at McDonnell's trial over the summer, saying their father was an upstanding and religious man who was struggling with a crumbling marriage and his wife's unhappiness. Robert and Maureen McDonnell were convicted in September of using the prestige of the governor's office to promote the company of nutritional supplement chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for lavish gifts and loans.

The McDonnell children said their parents rarely communicated because their relationship was so strained. McDonnell Zubowsky wrote that she believed her mother had mental-health problems for years and her father planned to address the issues after he left office. She wrote that her mother was lonely as her father's political career took off and she sought solace in material things. She also asked the judge to spare Robert McDonnell jail time because she is scheduled to give birth to his first grandchild in January.

Painful time

Cailin Young wrote that it was incredibly painful to see intimate details about her parents' private life splashed across TV and newspapers during the trial. She and other family members said the public humiliation and trauma of the conviction had shattered their lives and that they would have a difficult time if he were imprisoned.

The private pain and turmoil described by some of Robert McDonnell's closest family members contrasts sharply with the public figure that emerges in the hundreds of other letters submitted by the defense. From major policy initiatives to small kindnesses, the former Republican governor is described as a dedicated and tireless public servant, a principled prosecutor, and compassionate boss. Those submitting letters of support to the court include some high-profile names, like former House speaker Eric Cantor, preacher Pat Robertson, and Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D., Va.).

McDonnell's attorneys are pushing for U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer to sentence their client to community service, but federal prosecutors have argued that a probation officer's recommendation of more than 10 years in prison is a more appropriate sentence.

Supporters wrote in the letters of support that they were saddened, perplexed - and even bewildered in some cases - at what had befallen McDonnell. Lawyers for both Robert and Maureen McDonnell declined to comment for this story.

"The greatest tragedy in all of this is the decades of honorable work, selfless dedication to the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the goodness of the McDonnell family is diminished," said Maureen Clancy, a friend of the family. "It breaks my heart."