Robert F. McDonnell asserted firmly Thursday that he had no idea the Rolex watch his wife gave him for Christmas in 2011 actually was purchased by Jonnie R. Williams Sr. — at least not until the federal investigation was underway.
McDonnell said he learned the true source of the $6,500 luxury timepiece in March 2013 — more than a year after he got it. He denied sending Williams a picture text of himself wearing the Rolex in 2012 — a picture Williams has previously said was a confirmation to him that the governor knew who actually purchased the watch.
The testimony puts McDonnell at odds with Williams on a gift that jurors will likely remember. And jurors will likely be forced to believe one man’s testimony over the other’s, because while they have seen the picture from 2012, there is no corresponding record of a text with it.
McDonnell’s testimony is also the first time he has explained publicly, from start to finish, how he got the watch, what he knew about its purchase, and when he knew it.
McDonnell said his wife gave it to him as a Christmas present in 2011 — wrapped in a non-Rolex box, with no accompanying paperwork. “The packing that I got said, ‘From Santa,’” McDonnell said, “but that’s something my wife typically does.”
McDonnell testified that his wife also frequently bought him watches — the one he wears now, he says, is a 15-year-old Seiko, from her — so the gift itself was not entirely unusual. But he said he knew it was “expensive,” and figured a job Maureen McDonnell had recently obtained with philanthropic arm of one of the state’s major coal companies made it possible for her to afford the purchase.
“I didn’t interrogate her,” he said. “I didn’t question her about where it came from or any of that.”
McDonnell said the watch appeared to be new, but because of its packaging and lack of paperwork, he suspected that “maybe it’s not real.” He said he wore it for a couple weeks and said that two staffers soon advised him not to. Some time after that, he said, he began wearing it only on special occasions, mostly around family.
“Did you like the watch?” defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill asked.
“Not really,” McDonnell responded. “It was big. It was gawdy. It wasn’t my kind of watch.”
But McDonnell had to acknowledge he was photographed in December 2012 wearing the timepiece, and that photo ended up in Williams’s hands.
Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell is seen wearing the Rolex watch given to him by businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. The watch is engraved with the words “Robert F. McDonnell, 71st Governor of Virginia.” (U.S. Attorney’s Office)
Jurors have already seen the photo, and heard Williams testify he got it from the governor himself — despite a lack of phone records corroborating his account. McDonnell, though, said the photo appeared to have been shot in the back of a state police SUV. And based on the angle and where his wife usually sits in the vehicle, he said he assumed Maureen McDonnell was the one to take it.
“My best recollection is that would have been taken by my wife,” McDonnell said.
The photo shows McDonnell grinning and holding his hand aloft — Williams said he interpreted that as the governor bragging about the expensive gift. But McDonnell said he has no specific memory of its taking — “I’ve had my picture taken so many times,” he said — and he vehemently denied having sent it to Williams in a text.
“Do you know how this picture got to Jonnie Williams?” Asbill asked.
“I know how it didn’t get there … It didn’t get there from me,” he said.