Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, are battling a 14-count public corruption indictment that alleges that they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to a Richmond area businessman and that, in exchange, the businessman lavished them with gifts and money.
On Monday, Robert F. McDonnell faced hours of aggressive questioning at his corruption trial as a federal prosecutor sought to expose contradictions and inconsistencies in his account of his interactions with a wealthy Richmond businessman.
It was the fourth day that McDonnell occupied the witness stand in his own defense but the first in which he went head to head with his chief antagonist: Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry, who has led the investigation of McDonnell and his wife for more than 16 months.
Day 22 of the McDonnell trial opens with more vigorous cross-examination of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell. And there seems to be a lot more left.
At the end of Monday’s proceedings, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry told the judge his next subject would take 15 minutes and asked if he should proceed. The judge asked, “Are you anywhere near finished?”
“No, sir,” Dry responded.
In approaching 18 hours on the stand — 4 1/2 hours on cross-examination alone — McDonnell has run the emotional gamut, speaking confidently and purposefully at times, his voice nearing a whisper at others. He has given detailed accounts of various events, but he has claimed to have little to no recollection just as often. He has acknowledged receiving many gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr. but denied repeatedly he gave the former dietary supplement company executive any consideration that he would not have extended to any businessperson in Virginia. He has pulled back the curtain on what he says was his own failing marriage.
When Dry is done questioning McDonnell, the former governor’s own defense attorney will have a chance to question his client again and perhaps undo any damage that the prosecutor inflicted. It remains to be seen when that moment will come.
The proceedings get underway at 9:45 a.m.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry has renewed his cross-examination on Tuesday without so much as a “good morning” to former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell.
His first topic for the day: The events leading up to a $50,000 loan made out to MoBo Real Estate Partners by businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in the winter of 2012. That’s the company the governor owned with his sister.
Dry showed McDonnell an e-mail exchange he had with his wife and brother in-law in January 2012 in which there was the first conversation indicating that Maureen McDonnell was having discussions about money with Williams. In the e-mail, McDonnell asked who his wife was talking to about “helping us.”
“You’re not talking about MoBo, right?” Dry asked him. “You’re talking about you, your wife and your sister?”
“No,” McDonnell said.
“When you say ‘we,’ you mean MoBo?” Dry asked, incredulity creeping into his voice.
“Yes,” McDonnell said.
Dry is attempting to establish that while Williams made his check out to MoBo, the money was actually a loan to the former governor himself — a fact he must establish to win conviction on the bank fraud charges pending against the McDonnells.
Then Dry pointed out something else notable in the email exchange: McDonnell referred to Williams as “Johnnie.” In fact, the correct spelling of the businessman’s first name is “Jonnie.” Throughout 2012, the governor repeated that misspelling — even in a text message in which McDonnell requested $20,000 from the businessman.
“You’re aware today that that is not the correct spelling of Mr. Williams’s name?” Dry asked.
“Yes, I am,” McDonnell replied.
So, Dry asked, at that time, as he prepared to seek a $50,000 loan from the man, did McDonnell consider him a personal friend?
“It felt like we were becoming better friends,” McDonnell said.
“Not becoming,” Dry said. “Is it your testimony that at that time, Mr. Williams was a personal friend of yours?”
“He’s a friend,” McDonnell answered.
Robert F. McDonnell has acknowledged he and Jonnie R. Williams Sr. talked on the phone in early February 2012 about what would ultimately become a $50,000 loan to the then-governor’s real estate company, MoBo Real Estate Partners, from the businessman’s trust. Jurors have also seen the notes McDonnell took during the discussion about various stock and financial transactions.
As he began his cross examination of the former governor Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry examined the notes in painstaking detail to try to show that Williams offered McDonnell a sweetheart deal, and that both men contemplated keeping their arrangement secret — something Williams has said they did, but McDonnell has denied.
Highlighting various portions of the handwritten text, Dry showed the governor that at one time, Williams was thinking about loaning the then-governor 50,000 shares of Star Scientific stock, valued at $3.15 a share. Did McDonnell understand, Dry asked, that deal — which would have been worth $150,000 — was on the table?
“These were his proposals,” McDonnell responded. “There were notes from three years ago. I didn’t have a good understanding.”
Dry then asked about another note, in which the governor wrote about returning the 50,000 shares at “$1.90 (what Johnny paid for them).”
“Did you not understand,” Dry asked, “that he’s offering to loan you $150,000 worth of stock but only make you repay $90,000?”
“It really wasn’t clear to me,” McDonnell responded.
Dry questioned the governor aggressively — making his incredulity obvious — about a passage in which the governor had written “loan from Starwood Aviation to Maureen or MoBo” and circled “MoBo.” The prosecutor noted the circle was made with a different pen than was used to scribble the rest of the notes. Was it really true that McDonnell had made the circle — as he claimed — before the investigation started and because he always intended the loan to be made to his real estate company?
McDonnell held his ground.
“I did it when I put them in the file,” he said.
The prosecutor then took aim at a different section, which McDonnell had titled “Reportability.” The former governor has testified previously that he made notes in that section based on what Williams told him were his own disclosure requirements with the SEC. McDonnell has said he would have disclosed the transaction as required on his statement of economic interest, if that became necessary, and he denied ever speaking with Williams about the possibility of keeping their deal secret.
Dry seemed skeptical.
“That didn’t strike you as an odd thing to say in this conversation?” the prosecutor asked McDonnell about Williams and his own disclosure.
He continued: “Why would you care what his disclosure requirements were?”
“I didn’t,” McDonnell said flatly.
“Ok, he’s just offering this up?” Dry asked.
“Yes!” McDonnell said, his voice rising.
Finally, Dry pressed the governor about a passage in the notes indicating the transaction would need to be reviewed by lawyers. How would lawyers know, Dry asked, that the governor had helped Williams get a meeting with a state health official, or hosted a lunch for him at the mansion timed to coincide with the launch of his company’s supplement?
The governor acknowledged lawyers would only know about the event and the meeting if he or Williams volunteered that information.
After grilling Robert F. McDonnell about his Feb. 3, 2012 call to negotiate a loan from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry turned his attention to an e-mail exchange that took place, as he stressed to jurors, five days later.
This is a key point for prosecutors because McDonnell is trying to refute allegations that he and his wife were conspiring to assist Williams. The former governor is also attempting to quash the assertion that Williams had been clear about what he wanted from the McDonnell and the governor was well aware of the expectations.
The e-mail, sent by McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, to both the governor and top aide Jasen Eige, read: “Here’s the info from Jonnie,” she wrote. “He has calls in to VCU and UVA and no one will return his calls.” Again, Dry stressed that the first lady’s e-mail came right in the middle of the negotiations over a $50,000 loan.
Maureen McDonnell’s e-mail came with two attachments. One was a list of doctors whom Williams was trying to persuade to study his new dietary supplement. The other was a list of talking points that Williams’s company had used during a call with University of Virginia officials, including one indicating that it was the governor himself who recommended the company submit a grant application to Virginia’s tobacco commission.
Dry peppered McDonnell with questions about the exchange. When his wife wrote, “Here’s the info from Jonnie,” didn’t she mean that the two of them had previously discussed the issue? “I don’t remember a prior conversation,” McDonnell insisted.
What about after the e-mail landed? Did they discuss it afterward? McDonnell insisted they had not, even though, as Dry pointed out, shortly after it landed he and his wife traveled together to Washington, D.C. and stayed that night at a hotel.
What’s more, McDonnell maintained that while he read Maureen McDonnell’s e-mail, he failed to read the attachments to the note.
“I don’t recall seeing it,” he said. “If I did see it, I would have been upset with the lies in that. I did not suggest a grant to the tobacco commission.”
Dry again pushed sarcastically: It’s McDonnell’s testimony that he saw the email but not its attachments? Just five days after he spoke to Williams about a $50,000 loan?
“I don’t remember seeing this in real time, is my testimony,” McDonnell said. “I didn’t see it.”
“So before, you testified that you could not recall whether you saw that attachment? Now, your testimony is that you’re certain you didn’t see it?” Dry asked.
“Yes,” McDonnell replied.
Robert F. McDonnell’s jaw is getting tighter and anger is creeping into his voice, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry continues to hammer him with the odd timing of e-mails discussing possible studies of businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.’s dietary supplement at public universities, which landed in the same few days the governor was negotiating a $50,000 loan from Williams.
McDonnell has acknowledged that he saw an e-mail his wife, Maureen, sent to him and top aide Jasen Eige on Feb. 9, 2012, in which she wrote that Williams was having trouble getting his calls returned from the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Dry pointed out through that that evening, the couple traveled to the District of Columbia together to attend a Mitt Romney event, stayed a night at a hotel, and then the next morning spent more than 30 minutes in an SUV together driving to another event. McDonnell acknowledged previous testimony that they were, in fact, sitting next to each other in the vehicle.
During the time they rode together, Maureen McDonnell sent an e-mail to Eige in which she asked him to call Williams. “Gov wants to get this going w/VCU and UVa,” she wrote, adding “please see us when we return” to discuss further.
McDonnell insisted he did not see the e-mail and never told his wife he wanted to get the studies going. In fact, he maintained that the two never discussed Star Scientific or Anatabloc at all on the trip to Washington.
“Is it your testimony that your wife is misleading Mr. Eige?” Dry asked.
“I don’t know,” McDonnell insisted.
“Your testimony is that she would send this to Mr. Eige assuming that the two of you would not discuss it?” Dry persisted.
“I don’t know,” McDonnell said tightly. “I didn’t get the e-mail.”
“Is it your testimony that your wife is e-mailing Mr. Eige about this as she’s sitting next to you?” Dry persisted.
“My testimony is that I didn’t know the e-mail is being sent,” McDonnell replied.
Again, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry pointed to an email where Robert F. McDonnell misspelled businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.’s first name, as he took notes about negotiations with the executive for a $50,000 loan.
McDonnell has maintained he believed Williams was giving the money because he was a friend, not because he expected anything in return.
“So, he’s not a personal friend at this point, right?” Dry asked.
“He’s a friend at this point,” McDonnell maintained.
“Let me ask you about that,” Dry said. “Is it typical that with your friends, you misspell their names? Is this typical for you?”
“I misspelled his name. I did it repeatedly,” McDonnell said, his voice rising with anger. “It’s not like me, but I’ve done it before.”
“But he’s a personal friend,” Dry said sarcastically.
“He is a friend, yes sir,” McDonnell said.
Now, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry has hit Robert F. McDonnell with perhaps the most potentially damaging fact of the whole case: The six-minute e-mail.
Just before midnight on Feb. 16, 2012, McDonnell wrote an e-mail to businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. about a loan. Six minutes later, just after midnight, McDonnell wrote an e-mail to top aide Jasen Eige asking him to “pls see me” about “Anatabloc issues” UVa. and VCU. That’s the product made by Williams’s company that the businessman wanted studied at public universities.
“This is one of five e-mails I sent that night,” McDonnell said.
“Right,” Dry said with sarcasm.
“At this point, you know that Mr. Williams wants your assistance in getting UVa. and VCU” to study the product?
McDonnell insisted that was not correct. But Dry pointed out Williams sent a letter in June 2011 outlining his desired studies.
“You don’t understand that he is trying to get this studied and he wants your help?”
“That’s not what the June 16 letter said,” McDonnell insisted, describing as a proposal similar to hundreds of others he received. “He never asked me for help with UVa and VCU.”
Dry noted that McDonnell also said on Monday that he had posed with products for companies “hundreds of times.”
How many of those hundreds of proposals or pictures were affiliated with businessmen with whom he was negotiating a $50,000 loan?
“None,” McDonnell conceded.
“Any of them affiliated with people who gave $20,000 to MoBo?” Dry asked, referring to a later loan Williams had provided . “None,” McDonnell said.
Or provided thousands of dollars in golf? “None,” he said.
“So, you didn’t see Mr. Williams as unique?” Dry said, his voice reaching a new level of incredulity.
“Mr. Dry, if you’re suggesting that I got a $50,000 loan for MoBo in order to get Mr. Williams’s calls returned, you’re completely mistaken,” McDonnell said, his voice also rising.
Then Dry noted that Eige served as legal counsel to the governor, but McDonnell never told him about the personal financial discussions with the businessman. Didn’t McDonnell think the loan negotiations would be relevant to Eige during a conversation about studies Williams wanted at public universities?
“To ask him to get a phone call returned, which I had done thousands of times? It’s basic constituent service,” McDonnell said. “No sir.”
Robert F. McDonnell has long sought to posit his testimony as contradicting that of Jonnie R. Williams Sr., hoping jurors will believe him over the wheeling-and-dealing dietary supplement salesman.
But in cross-examining the former governor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry highlighted another person whose account seems to differ from McDonnell’s.
The governor’s own stock broker and longtime family friend.
Dry said the broker, John Piscitelli, had testified earlier in the trial that McDonnell told him in a February 2012 conference call that Star Scientific, Williams’s company, was holding stock for him. McDonnell disputed having said that, saying the intent of the call with his broker was to discuss a possible “margin loan” from Williams to the governor’s real estate company.
“No sir,” McDonnell told the prosecutor, of whether he had told Piscitelli that Star Scientific was holding stock for him. “I did not. That was a miscommunication.”
The broker, Piscitelli, also testified earlier in the trial that the governor and his wife asked on the same call about opening a stock account in Maureen McDonnell’s name only, and having that account stand totally segregated. At Dry’s questioning, McDonnell said he recalled the testimony, but he saw their discussions as far more tentative.
The questioning seems designed to both highlight instances where McDonnell’s testimony differs from others, and also to raise questions about when he learned about his wife’s buying and selling of Star Scientific stock, and whether that was done to hide the transactions. The former governor has testified that in February 2012, he believed his wife had sold Star stock she bought the previous year. Dry probed aggressively on why, then, it would be necessary to open segregated brokerage account in his wife’s name for some new stock from Williams.
McDonnell ultimately held his own, insisting he did not know that his wife was holding Star stock at that moment in time, and that he asked about a segregated account only because Williams’s loan — in whatever form it would take — was intended for his real estate company.
On Feb. 29, 2012, Robert F. McDonnell and Jonnie R. Williams Sr. met to discuss what would ultimately become a low-interest $50,000 loan. At the questioning of Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry, though, the former governor was forced to acknowledge the financial transaction — at one time — could have been even more favorable for him.
McDonnell acknowledged at Dry’s questioning that he and Williams actually first discussed the loan as a stock transaction: Williams would essentially lend shares of stock that the governor could use as collateral in securing a cash loan. And the repayment options, as pondered in the governor’s own notes, seem especially generous. McDonnell would either simply return the shares or purchase them at $2.20 each, despite the fact that they were then trading a $3.75 a share.
“Regardless, if the stock went up to $10, you’re protected, because you only have to pay him $2.20?” Dry asked.
“That’s the proposal that he made, that I wrote down, yes, sir,” McDonnell said.
The meeting happened, notably, on the same day as a health-care leaders reception at the governor’s mansion. Jurors know that Williams was allowed to shape the guest list at the event, to the dismay of the state’s health secretary.