Bob McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia, has been sentenced to two years in prison for taking nearly US$170,000 ($219,000) in money and gifts in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement while he was in office.

McDonnell, a rising star of the Republican Party who was once on the short list to be Mitt Romney's vice-presidential running mate in 2012, was sentenced after being convicted of 11 counts of corruption.

The relatively light sentence surprised many after prosecutors recommended a sentence of at least 10 years in prison, requesting the judge to send a clear signal to government officials that corruption would not pay.

McDonnell received a two-year custodial sentence and two years' probation from a US District Judge sitting in Richmond. Defence lawyers for the former governor had asked the judge to order three years of community service.

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"No one wants to see the governor of Virginia in this kind of trouble," the judge, James Spencer, said before imposing sentence. "It breaks my heart, but a meaningful sentence must be imposed."

The former governor and his wife, Maureen, were found guilty in September. She was convicted of eight counts and will be sentenced next month. McDonnell said he planned to appeal against the sentence. The six-week jury trial exposed details of the former first couple's strained marriage and shaky finances.

McDonnell and his wife were charged with receiving US$177,000 in loans and gifts from Jonnie Williams, a dietary supplement entrepreneur, in exchange for promoting his company's main product, the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc.

Sixty per cent of Virginia adults believed McDonnell should go to prison, according to a poll in October bythe University of Mary Washington's Centre for Leadership and Media Studies.

Trial prosecutors contended McDonnell and his wife conspired to use the governor's office to boost Williams' company, Star Scientific and Anatabloc.

Shortly after the hearing, McDonnell, who has a month to report to prison, thanked the judge for "the mercy he showed me today", but continued to deny any wrongdoing.

"I am a fallen human being. I have made mistakes in my life ... But I have never betrayed my sacred oath of office while I served the commonwealth."