Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell traded the influence of his office for more than $150,000 in loans and gifts from a businessman seeking state help to promote dietary supplements, a U.S. prosecutor said.
A cash-strapped McDonnell repeatedly asked entrepreneur Jonnie Williams for financial assistance and received a stream of benefits ranging from real estate loans and use of Williams’s Ferrari to $15,000 for a wedding luncheon for his daughter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber said as the ex-governor’s corruption trial began opened in Richmond, Virginia.
In exchange, Aber told the jury of eight men and four women, evidence would show that McDonnell invited state university researchers to review Williams’ products at the governor’s mansion and prodded a state health official to meet with Williams on short notice.
McDonnell “had a duty not to sell the power of this office and the influence of this office and that is exactly what he did,” Aber told the court.
Lawyers for McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, who is being tried with him, painted a picture of strained relations between the couple that were exploited by Williams .
Maureen McDonnell traveled with Williams to other states to promote Anatabloc, the supplement his company, Star Scientific Inc. (STSC), was marketing.
Maureen had a “crush” on Williams, who had manipulated her and showered her with gifts in a scheme to gain influence with the governor, said John Brownlee of Holland & Knight, Robert McDonnell’s lawyer.
The prosecution won’t be able to present any evidence that Williams received any financial benefit from the state for any of the ventures resulting from his relationship with the McDonnells, according to Brownlee.
The prosecution case depends in part on Williams, who has been granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.
Williams’s motives should be suspect not only because of the grant of immunity in the McDonnell case but also because he has been shielded from prosecution in separate, “multimillion-dollar securities and tax crimes that had nothing to do with Bob McDonnell,” Brownlee said.
“The federal government’s case depends entirely on a dishonest man,” Brownlee said.
Robert McDonnell, 60, worked long hours, angering and frustrating his wife, according to Brownlee. “This broke apart their marriage and an outsider, another man, would invade and poison their marriage,” Brownlee said.
William Burck, Maureen McDonnell’s lawyer, told a hushed courtroom that she had developed a relationship with Williams “that some might consider inappropriate.”
She considered Williams “her favorite playmate” and texted or e-mailed him 1,200 times from 2011 to 2013, Burck said.
However, Maureen McDonnell, 60, was not a public servant “and had no official duties and no responsibilities,” Burck said, arguing that charging her with public corruption is wrong. The federal case targets her husband and Maureen is “collateral damage,” he said.
The opening statements came at the second day of what is expected to a five-week trial for the McDonnells who face 14 criminal counts in the first-ever case of a Virginia governor facing corruption charges. Charges against the McDonnells include conspiracy, honest services fraud and making false statements. The couples faces as long as 30 years in prison.
The case is U.S. v. McDonnell, 14-cr-00012, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Richmond).
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Zajac in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org