Former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, are battling a 14-count public corruption indictment that alleges they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to a Richmond area businessman, and in exchange, the businessman lavished them with gifts and money. Jurors on Monday resumed hearing testimony from witnesses during a trial in federal court in Richmond.
The Bob and Maureen McDonnell federal corruption trial opens a new phase Monday, as the defense takes over the case. Each of the defendants will have the opportunity to mount a separate case. Though either could go first, we expect the former governor’s team will likely present his case first, since defense attorneys argue the couple rise and fall on his actions.
That’s because as first lady, Maureen McDonnell, was not a public official and, they say, could not have engaged in an illegal bargain to sell the influence of her office. She can only be convicted if prosecutors prove the couple were acting in concert. If defense attorneys show that the former governor made no deal, then the threat of a conviction for them both fades.
The couple jointly submitted a list of more than 200 potential witnesses they may call as part of their case, but it’s unlikely anything like that many people will be called. The central witness for both will be the former governor himself. His attorneys have promised he will take the stand, but that might not occur for several days.
Other witnesses will likely include state economic development officials, to testify that the kind of access McDonnell provided dietary supplement executive Jonnie Williams was routine. The defense could also try to offer more witnesses to explain the couple’s finances and show that they were not desperate for Williams’s cash, as prosecutors have suggested.
In Richmond for McDonnell trial. Janet Kelly, former secty of commonwealth, for the defense: “I’m just Looking fwd to telling the truth”
— Jonathan Weisman (@jonathanweisman) August 18, 2014
There could also be witnesses from the former first couple’s personal lives, to talk about troubles in the marriage and the difficulties the former first lady faced in adjusting to her role. Those witnesses would be designed to bolster the couple’s claim that they could not have conspired because their marriage was shaky and they were barely speaking in 2011 and 2012.
The defense has indicated it could call former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican who shared the ticket with McDonnell in 2009 but who also took gifts from Williams and owned stock in his company Star Scientfic. Cuccinelli did not disclose some of his gifts until after the Washington Post first revealed the relationship between the McDonnells and Williams and the defense’s goal with him would be to suggest that they have been selectively targeted by prosecutors for conduct that is not uncommon in Virginia.
Finally, at some point, we will hear from character witnesses. Bob McDonnell has asked to present 10 witnesses to testify to his good character. The prosecution wants that limited to three. The judge hasn’t set a limit yet though has indicated he is unlikely to allow more than five. McDonnell’s witness list suggests those names could include former Democratic governor L. Douglas Wilder and Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell (R).
Another juror has been excused from the McDonnell trial, leaving just one alternate on the panel.
U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer announced the news as proceedings opened Monday, saying juror number 389 had “a family emergency out of state.”
“Obviously, we’re praying for him,” Spencer said.
The man is the third person to be excused from the jury, which means there is only one alternate left should any other jurors need to leave.
Defense attorneys’ first witness is Brenda Chamberlain, who worked as the bookkeeper for the real estate company that Robert F. McDonnell owned with his sister.
That company, MoBo Real Estate Partners, and its finances have played a prominent role in the trial. The company managed two rental properties in Virginia Beach that were losing tens of thousands of dollars each year, and prosecutors allege Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. loaned $70,000 to the company as part of a corrupt bargain with the governor.
Chamberlain would have had access to the company’s financial information, and defense attorneys might use her to counter the notion that it and the McDonnells were in severe financial distress. She also might talk of the access the McDonnells gave her to their financial information, which could counter the notion that they were trying to hide their relationship with Williams.
Jurors have so far heard a great deal from prosecutors about financial health of MoBo, the limited liability partnership co-owned by Bob McDonnell and his sister, which operated two investment properties that the two owned in Virginia Beach. Prosecutors have suggested the properties were leaking money and that a desperate need to keep up with payments on the $2 million in property might have provided motive for striking a deal with executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
Now, jurors are hearing about MoBo with some more nuance from bookkeeper Brenda Chamberlain. She testified that when she was hired in 2009, the company’s books were not being well maintained. From 2009 to 2012, her point of contact for the enterprise was Michael Uncapher, who at that time was married to McDonnell’s sister. But she testified that Uncapher was an unreliable client, sometimes going months without sending her the records she needed to keep the books in order.
In one September 2011 e-mail shown to Chamberlain by McDonnell defense attorney John Brownlee, she complained to Uncapher that he had sent her nothing about MoBo since April of that year. “Your accounts are extremely in need of updating,” she wrote.
Then Brownlee walked Chamberlain through records she had drawn up for the 2012 calendar year for MoBo, showing her large net losses for the company that had been highlighted by prosecutors. But under questioning she testified that those losses included depreciation — an on-paper record of the fact that the properties were losing value every year. Putting aside the paper loss, she said, net income actually exceeded net expenses for the 2012 year, she testified.
Then-governor Robert F. McDonnell gave a bookkeeper full access to his online banking records – something his defense attorney is playing up in an effort to show that the governor was not acting as if he had anything to hide.
As he continues to question bookkeeper Brenda Chamberlain, defense attorney John Brownlee has focused on the fact that Bob McDonnell gave her computer passwords that would allow her to see what money came in and out of accounts for two limited liability partnerships. The governor co-owned the partnerships with his sister to operate two investment properties in Virginia Beach and one at the Wintergreen ski resort.
Chamberlain said only a small minority of her clients – perhaps four out of a total of 28 – gave her that sort of access. But she said the governor did not hesitate to give her the power to look into the bank account in early 2013. At that time, the governor was taking a more active role in managing the properties because the brother-in-law who had been handling those duties was separating from the governor’s sister.
By granting that access, Chamberlain said she would have been able to view a $50,000 check and a $20,000 wire transfer that Star Scientific chief Jonnie Williams had provided to one of the partnerships. She said he granted her that access after speaking to him just once, by phone.
With their first witness — the bookkeeper for former governor Robert F. McDonnell’s real estate company — defense attorneys sought to show that McDonnell was not trying to hide the $70,000 in loans his company got from Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. At the questioning of defense attorney John L. Brownlee, the bookkeeper said she had full access to the company’s account information and would have seen transactions for the $70,000.
But under cross-examination from Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Faulconer, the bookkeeper, Brenda Chamberlain, acknowledged that the governor did not provide her specifics on those loans until Feb. 19, 2013 — days after his wife had been interviewed by law enforcement. And even then, Chamberlain testified, he did not specifically name Williams, but only his Starwood Trust, the entity from which the loans to the real estate company were made.
The debate is nuanced but important, because prosecutors need to show that McDonnell had corrupt intent in his relationship with Williams, and evidence that he worked to hide their ties could help demonstrate that to jurors.
The bookkeeper testified that she had access to the accounts for MoBo Real Estate Partners by Feb. 4, 2013, well before the governor’s wife, Maureen McDonnell, was interviewed by law enforcement. At at that time, Chamberlain testified, she would have seen line entries on bank statements reflecting the $70,000 in loans from Williams’s Starwood Trust.
But Faulconer pointed out that she would have lacked details on the terms of the loans. And he noted that even when the governor wrote Chamberlain on Feb. 18, 2013, he said only that the loans came from “a third party to the LLC,” failing to mention Williams or his trust entirely.
Chamberlain testified that McDonnell did list the loans as having come from the trust in a Feb. 19, 2013, e-mail, but again did not name Williams. Handwritten notes suggest that around that time, she also talked with the governor about the terms, but Chamberlain said she did not remember the governor mentioning Williams.
In March of 2013, shortly after Bob McDonnell specifically noted loans from a Starwood Trust to his bookkeeper for the first time — and shortly after his wife, Maureen, was interviewed by law enforcement about businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. — the governor lodged a request to the bookkeeper.
For the first time since she started keeping books for the limited liability corporation he owned with his sister, Bob McDonnell asked Brenda Chamberlain to send him a written contract, as well as a confidentiality agreement.
Chamberlain responded by sending him a formal letter of agreement but told him she did not have a confidentiality agreement drafted. No one had ever asked her for one before.
On March 4, 2013, McDonnell responded: “Thought u might have a standard confidentiality agreement since you have so much personal financial information for our family.”
Under questioning from former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Faulconer, Chamberlain agreed that McDonnell never did mention Jonnie Williams, never provided documentation for his loans and never provided her any information about the $70,000 extended by Williams through the Starwood Trust in 2012.
And one more thing he did not tell her: Chamberlain agreed that at no point after McDonnell for the first time specifically highlighted loans from a Starwood Trust in a 1 a.m. Feb. 19, 2013, e-mail did he mention his wife’s Virginia State Police interview on Feb. 15, 2013.
Now on the stand is one of former governor Bob McDonnell’s very closest and longest-serving aides: Janet Vestal Kelly, who really first got to know him as a Regent University professor of political leadership.
Kelly served in the governor’s Cabinet as secretary of the commonwealth, a job that, among other things, involves filling 4,000 slots on public boards and commissions.
Kelly’s association with Bob McDonnell stretches back to the days when he was a state delegate and she was a Regent University student. Fresh out of Liberty University, Kelly said her first interaction with the future governor came in the form of a letter. She had just moved to the Virginia Beach area, and the then-delegate sent a letter welcoming the newly registered voter to his district. She said she was impressed by that, and impressed again later when she read a positive news story about him. Kelly was then working toward a master’s degree in public policy at Regent. When she saw that Bob McDonnell was teaching a course there on political leadership, she signed up it.
Kelly went on to volunteer in his office, work on his 1999 reelection campaign and serve as his legislative aide during the 2000 General Assembly session. She was campaign manager for his 2005 race for attorney general – a bid that she described, with a laugh, as “barely” successful. McDonnell won by 360 votes.
She served as director of administration during his term as attorney general and was a part of his senior campaign staff when he successfully ran for governor in 2009.
A foreshadowing of testimony to come from Bob McDonnell’s arguably closest personal friend within the administration, former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly.
Kelly testified that during McDonnell’s 2009 campaign for governor, one of her jobs was to work one-on-one with the candidate’s wife, Maureen McDonnell.
“It was very hard for me,” she said. “I’m personally very fond of Maureen.”
“The campaign was the first time I’d seen some of the challenging behavior that I’m sure the jury has heard about,” Kelly said.
She said that by the time the campaign ended, the two’s relationship was “strained.”
“My relationship with the first lady had deteriorated beyond the point of common sense,” she said.
As a result, she requested that another staffer be named the first lady’s primary point of contact within the governor’s office.
With that testimony, Henry Asbill, an attorney for Bob McDonnell, promised Kelly that he would return to the topic of the first lady in a bit. Instead, he turned her attention to the overriding priorities of the McDonnell administration during the governor’s four years in office.
Kelly is now testifying about McDonnell’s campaign slogan “Bob’s for Jobs” and the way his team worked to integrate economic development into all aspects of his policy work.
Via the testimony of a long-serving aide, defense attorneys seem to be trying to show jurors that Robert F. McDonnell was a good man who always had Virginians’ best interest on his mind.
Former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly described her former boss Monday as an “extraordinarily gracious” man who “would always ask how we were doing, ask about a day, our significant others, whatever.” At one point, after she acknowledged McDonnell could be “frustrating to work for” because he did not clearly prioritize tasks, Kelly interrupted defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill to clarify what she had said.
“There wasn’t ever a time where he made me feel uncomfortable,” Kelly said. “There wasn’t ever a time when I questioned his motives.”
In pre-trial filings, defense attorneys said that they intended to make McDonnell’s character a hallmark of their case — positing him as a good person who could not have harbored the necessary corrupt intent to engage in the conspiracy of which he is accused. Kelly’s testimony seems to be an attempt to bolster that assertion.
Kelly testified, too, that if the governor wanted something done — and his staffers were not doing it — he could get upset. That is important because it could help defense attorneys demonstrate that McDonnell neither did — nor promised to do — anything for Jonnie R. Williams Sr. None of the former staffers who served as prosecutors’ witnesses testified that the governor was upset about their dealings with Williams. And beyond meetings with staffers and the ability to shape governor’s mansion events, Williams never seemed to get what he was seeking for his company and its product.