By Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times
RICHMOND, Va. — It is the kind of corruption that would attract attention even from jaded voters in places like Illinois or Louisiana, with long-established records of shady government dealings. But for Virginians, who have enjoyed generations of relative purity in state government, the spectacle in federal court here is shocking.
The former governor and his wife are on trial, trying to explain an unconsummated love triangle with a businessman who says he can nuke carcinogens out of tobacco in his kitchen microwave — and that’s the defense version of the case.
It’s a sordid tale involving secret cash transfers, private jets, a male model and an iPhone snapshot of former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell wearing a very expensive Rolex.
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, are charged with public corruption. Federal prosecutors allege that the couple, financially strapped and eager to live the high life, aggressively solicited cash and gifts from the businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a local millionaire.
In return, prosecutors say, the couple provided state help promoting a nutritional supplement made out of tobacco. The McDonnells admit taking the gifts, but deny giving favors in return.
Williams is now the government’s star witness, and to try to defuse his testimony, the defense kicked off the trial with a bombshell: The McDonnells’ marriage had unraveled in the governor’s mansion, defense lawyers told the jury in opening statements. That, they said, left Maureen McDonnell desperate for attention, and she got it from the jet-setting Williams, on whom she had a “crush.”
The argument, although undoubtedly embarrassing to the couple, forms a key part of their defense. To convict either of the McDonnells, prosecutors must prove that Bob McDonnell did governmental favors for Williams in return for gifts.
If the defense can convince the jury that Williams was motivated by friendship for Maureen McDonnell and that she had kept the governor in the dark about his gifts because she and her husband weren’t speaking, the couple would escape prison.
Richmond, which long viewed itself as immune from the self-dealing that infects other state capitals, has for years resisted imposing gift limits and other ethics laws common in American politics. Showering lavish gifts on politicians is legal in the state, so long as the gift giver doesn’t get special favors in return.
At the center of the scandal is a purported wonder drug — a nutritional supplement Williams says he invented from tobacco, which he told the jury he learned to make less dangerous with his microwave.
Williams testified that he was willing to supply gifts in return for help getting Virginia’s public medical schools to embrace his product, as well as getting the governor to promote it.
The supplement was launched, with much fanfare, at an event at the governor’s mansion. The state’s first lady traveled the country with Williams, promoting the product at events with groups of doctors and potential investors.
The defense argues that none of that was caused by Williams’ gifts. Indeed, they say, the governor was largely unaware of the money and presents Williams had given his wife.
That could be a hard argument for jurors to accept. Evidence shows Williams gave a $50,000 loan to the McDonnells, paid $15,000 for catering at the wedding of one of their daughters, took Maureen McDonnell on a $19,000 shopping spree at Oscar de la Renta and Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan and bought the governor an engraved $6,500 Rolex at a jewelry shop in Malibu.
On Friday the government showed the jury a photo of the governor wearing the Rolex. McDonnell has said he thought the watch was a gift from his wife, not Williams. But this photo was one texted from the governor’s phone to Williams. It shows McDonnell flashing what appears to be the watch while smiling a broad grin.
In court, Williams described the purchase of the timepiece: “I called Maureen McDonnell from the store,” Williams said. “I asked her, what would you like engraved on the watch? She thought about it. Then she said, ‘Put “71st governor” on it.'”
He regretted the purchase, he said.
“I shouldn’t have had to buy things like that to get the help I needed,” he said. “It was a bad decision.”
He did not consider the first couple personal friends, Williams testified. They had “a business relationship,” he said: He gave them money and gifts, and they helped him advance his business.
Whatever a jury ultimately decides, the case has caused an astonishing fall for the former governor.
The congenial McDonnell was known as an effective deal maker and a rising star in the GOP. He received accolades from Democrats and Republicans alike for his style of governance. Throughout most of the one term McDonnell was permitted to serve under Virginia’s constitution, his relationship with his wife, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader, seemed drawn from a storybook.
“This was the Beaver Cleaver family,” said Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. “Everybody knew he was religiously conservative and socially conservative, but he did not play those things up. Nobody expected his family would become a story, or the behavior of his wife (or) his kids would become a story.”
“Months into this scandal, there were still Republicans saying, ‘There has to be an easy explanation, this can’t be as it appears,'” Kidd said.
Now, Bob and Maureen McDonnell awkwardly sit feet away at adjoining tables in the courtroom, barely acknowledging one another as they face the prospect of prison terms that could run as long as 20 years — although as first-time offenders they would probably receive less.
Beyond the threat of prison, there is also the sheer tawdriness of the evidence.
Williams testified that on a luxury vacation for the McDonnells, which he paid for in Cape Cod, he had popped open a $5,000 bottle of cognac and poured the governor a glass. They drank the same cognac again, he testified, while traipsing around New York City with a friend of his who is a male model.
Defense attorneys are seeking to discredit Williams as a huckster and fraud. They point to his own considerable legal troubles and suggest he is fibbing to get in the good graces of prosecutors, who otherwise have a thin case.
In building the government case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry returned repeatedly to the lengths to which Williams went to keep the transactions secret. Instead of lending $50,000 outright to the McDonnells, Williams sought to provide the funds through a complicated transfer of stock certificates, then eventually funneled the money through a real estate company the McDonnell family owned. He testified that his intention was to evade disclosure.
“I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing,” Williams said. “I was loaning him money for him to help me.”
While much of Williams’ testimony was focused on his interactions with the first lady, prosecutors said the governor was very much involved in the solicitations for gifts.
They showed the jury several text messages the governor sent to Williams. One read: “Per voice mail, would like to see if you could extend another 20k loan for this year.”
AFP Photo/Alex Wong