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.
After 24 days dissecting public acts and private pain, closing arguments were scheduled for Friday in the federal corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer shared his proposed instructions with the trial teams, who then pressed to have him add or delete information that would bring the instructions closer to their views of the case.
Friday is the 25th day of the Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell federal corruption trial, and it is scheduled to be the trial’s last day before the jury gets to deliberate the case to reach a verdict.
But first, jurors will hear critically important closing arguments from both sides. After weeks of testimony — some of it salacious, some of it tedious — the lawyers will get a chance to tell the jurors what they think it all means.
It’s a chance for prosecutors to try to tie their whole case together and for defense attorneys to offer a final dissection of its weaknesses. It’s not expected to be brief.
There will be four separate closing statements in the case. The prosecution will go first. Then lawyers for both Bob and Maureen McDonnell will deliver separate arguments on behalf of their clients. Finally, prosecutors will get a chance for a second, shorter rebuttal argument. (Prosecutors get to go twice because they hold the much higher burden of proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt. If they fail, the jury should acquit, even if the defense makes no argument at all.)
When all argument is complete, Judge James R. Spencer will read instructions to the jury to guide their deliberations. He spent around two hours haggling over the wording of that charge with lawyers on Thursday. The instructions, too, are lengthy and it will take some time for Spencer to read them all aloud. (Thankfully for jurors, he’s said he’ll also give them copies in writing.)
It is not yet clear if Spencer is hoping to instruct the jury on Friday or if closing statements will take so long as to make that unreasonable.
Regardless, the general expectation is that after this extremely long day, he will ask jurors to go home, get rest and prepare to come back fresh on Tuesday morning to face the all-important task of coming to a verdict.
Federal prosecutor David Harbach is delivering the prosecutor’s first closing argument, telling jurors that the case against Bob and Maureen McDonnell boils down to “one simple question.”
“All of the things that Jonnie Williams gave and that the defendants here accepted,” he said. “The simple question is: why?”
“Why did he give them? Why did they take them?” Harbach asked. Was it friendship? Or was it a corrupt agreement.
The evidence, Harbach insisted, proves beyond a reasonable doubt that dietary supplement executive gave more than $177,000 in gifts and loans so that then-Gov. McDonnell would perform official acts on his behalf “when the opportunity arose, on an as needed basis.”
He said evidence established “what Jonnie Williams wanted–and they knew it–and what they wanted. And Jonnie Williams knew it.”
“That’s bribery,” Harbach said. “That’s corruption. The real thing.”
He said the corrupt nature of the bargain was shown by the “lengths they all went, Jonnie Williams included, to hide it.”
The next topic taken up by federal prosecutor David Harbach in his closing argument: Something the case against Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell is not about.
“Not a penny of all the graft alleged in the indictment … was a campaign contribution,” he said. “Not one penny.”
Harbach said he did not understand why the former governor would spend 20 minutes opening his testimony discussing campaign donations because not one word about them will appear in the instructions jurors receive from Judge James R. Spencer.
This is an attempt to draw a distinction for jurors between the kind of access that campaign donors routinely receive and the relationship between the McDonnells and Williams, who gave thousands of dollars to personally assist the former governor’s family, as well as luxury items such as a Rolex watch.
Prosecutor David Harbach, perhaps in a bid to get the jury on his side through sincerity, has noted that the weight of the case rests on his own team.
“One hundred percent of the burden is on our shoulders,” he said. “We’re like Atlas.” “You go right ahead and hold us to that burden. That’s what you’ve been sworn to do, and it’s your duty.”
He noted the defense was under no obligation to put on a case at all. They need not have offered any testimony and former governor Robert F. McDonnell was not required to take the stand in his own defense.
But, Harbach added: “They did all of those things. And you can darn sure review all of that and test it.”
After some broad opening comments, federal prosecutor David Harbach laid out for jurors what he believed motivated the McDonnells to seek the largesse of Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
Talking slowly and clearly, Harbach began his narrative in 2010, when Robert F. McDonnell took his seat as governor with $75,000 in credit card debt. “It’s no wonder,” Harbach said, “Mr. McDonnell was so upset with his wife about the credit card debt.”
To compound things, Harbach said, the two rental properties McDonnell co-owned with his sister in Virginia Beach were “upside down.” He said McDonnell and his sister tried to refinance “umpteen” times and had no success.
Harbach said the governor and the businessman had taken a flight together in October 2010, and the next month, Williams was allowed to meet with the state’s health secretary. Early the following year, Harbach said, the governor appeared at an event to promote a product — not Anatabloc, but one called CigRx.
Harbach acknowledged that at that point in time, the governor had not taken any “personal gifts or loans from Williams.” But the meetings and the appearance “show you that the defendants knew what Jonnie Williams wanted,” Harbach said.
“That’s the stage,” Harbach said, “when our story begins, with a shopping spree.”
Prosecutor David Harbach began his closing argument in earnest with the infamous New York shopping spree that businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. treated Maureen McDonnell to in April 2011.
Then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell claims he did not know Williams had purchased the clothes, Harbach said. But the governor has testified that he knew that his wife had made inappropriate requests for money in the past, and that he knew she had wanted Williams to buy her a dress for his inauguration and “was furious that she didn’t get it.” The couple stayed in a hotel together in New York and sat next to Williams at an event that night.
“How do you miss that?” Harbach asked. “You don’t miss that.”
He noted that Williams came to dinner at the mansion not long after, which he used “to talk about Anatabloc and how great it is, and how much he needs those studies” from the tobacco commission. Williams then had a staffer send an article on the supplement to Maureen McDonnell, who forwarded it to her husband.
Likewise, he attacked the notion that McDonnell did not know about a $50,000 loan in May of that same year from Williams to the real estate company the governor owned with his sister until after the fact. He pointed to e-mails in which McDonnell discussed unsuccessful attempts to refinance what the prosecutor referred to as their “umpteen mortgages” on properties that were “money pits.”
Maureen McDonnell, the governor’s wife, then had a 40-minute conversation with Jonnie Williams in which they discussed the real estate issue, Harbach said, and a meeting was scheduled between her and the businessman for the next day.
That is the meeting where, according to Williams, McDonnell said that “the governor says it’s okay for me to help you, but I need you to help me.”
Harbach acknowledged that the government is relying on the testimony of Williams, who is cooperating under an immunity agreement. But, he said, much of what Williams testified to — that the McDonnells were in financial trouble, had already gotten a private loan from a doctor, and that Maureen McDonnell had a background in nutritional supplements — is corroborated.
After meeting with Williams, Maureen McDonnell tried to call her sister-in-law, her sister-in-law’s husband and her own husband — everyone involved in the real estate company. She had a 48-minute call with Williams. That night, Bob McDonnell had an 84-minute conversation with his sister. The government’s implication: Those calls were about the details of the $50,000 loan.
Federal prosecutor David Harbach is drilling into the so-called “quo” section of the case — arguing to jurors that what Robert F. McDonnell did for Jonnie R. Williams Sr. was “official” and reliant on his powers as Virginia’s governor.
Harbach took particular aim at a 2011 event at the governor’s mansion — one that McDonnell’s defense attorneys had sought to cast as a routine luncheon to which Williams was invited and one that prosecutors had posited as a launch party for Williams’s supplement, Anatabloc.
Harbach first made the case that the event was far more “launch” then “lunch.” He noted that Anatabloc was laid out at each place setting and Williams himself spoke and pulled out Anatabloc as a prop. The event, Harbach argued, was undeniably helpful to the businessman and his company. The governor was there and spoke. Two doctors at state universities, who Williams was trying to convince to study Anatabloc, left impressed. One, Harbach noted, said he felt the event was “designed to make a big splash.” Another called his office from the car on the way home.
“Jonnie Williams was on cloud nine,” Harbach said. “This is exactly what he wanted. This is exactly what he was paying for.”
And Harbach said how the event was labeled was of little consequence. No matter how you name it, it was an official act, he said.
“Folks, the label for this matters not one bit,” Harbach said, pausing dramatically to punctuate each of his last three words. “The question is whether hosing that event at the mansion is an official act … What matters most of all was that Mr. McDonnell showed up.”
One key cog of the McDonnells’ defense throughout the trial has been Mary-Shea Sutherland. Jurors have heard evidence that Sutherland was working to secure a job for herself with Jonnie R. Williams Sr. while serving as Maureen McDonnell’s chief of staff, and defense attorneys have argued she did so behind the first lady’s back — often lending Williams official favors to help her cause.
In his closing argument, federal prosecutor David Harbach launched a vigorous attack on that idea.
He talked in particular of an August 2011 lunch at the mansion that coincided with the day Williams’s supplement, Anatabloc, was launched to market. Jurors have seen evidence that Sutherland was intimately involved in planning the function.
Harbach said the arguments fit with the defense’s “general strategy of trying to make the case about anybody other than their clients,” but they are wrong. The idea for the luncheon, Harbach said, came from the first lady herself, who unveiled it while speaking in support of Williams’s product in Florida earlier that year.
“It was on nobody’s radar until it came out of the first lady’s mouth in Florida,” Harbach said.
Harbach noted, too, that Sutherland left the first lady’s staff in October 2011 — well before the governor himself negotiated $70,000 in loans for his real estate company from Williams, and well before other significant events in the case. He said Williams viewed his relationship with the McDonnells as much more important than his relationship with Sutherland, noting that he showed “no hesitation” in revealing to the first lady that Sutherland and he were talking about Sutherland leaving her job at the mansion.
And the “best evidence that this defense is a loser?” Harbach rhetorically asked jurors. Sutherland’s own impressive testimony.
“She was direct. She was calm. She was patient,” Harbach said. “When she worked for these people, she was the only adult in the room.”
Having made the case that that Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell were in financial distress during the time they were accepting gifts from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., prosecutor David Harbach is now pushing back on testimony from the former governor’s sister.
“She’s loaded,” Harbach said of McDonnell’s sister, who is also named Maureen. “Undisputed.”
But, he said, it doesn’t matter, because the governor didn’t take that route. “Maybe he didn’t want to hit up his little sister for more money, maybe he was too proud,” he suggested, or maybe Maureen McDonnell wasn’t interested in throwing more of her savings into the real estate business she and her brother owned together.
As for the accountant hired by the defense to argue that the McDonnells had other sources for money, Harbach dismissed him as “a hired gun who was shooting blanks” by invoking “nonsense options” and “fantasy cash.”
Whatever the reason and whatever the other options, Harbach said, the point is that the governor “asked Jonnie for it. He asked for it.”