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 Friday were hearing testimony from witnesses during a trial in federal court in Richmond.
The corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, continues Friday with defense lawyers cross-examining Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the businessman who is the key witness bolstering prosecutors’ claims that the couple accepted lavish gifts in exchange for promoting the dietary supplement business Star Scientific.
The picture could shatter any assertion that the governor was unaware that Williams — who was then the chief executive of a dietary-supplement company — had provided the expensive timepiece. McDonnell (R) has previously said the watch was a Christmas gift from his wife.
Many of Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry’s questions for Williams appeared designed to prove that Robert McDonnell was in the loop about what the businessman wanted from the first couple — and was aware of many of the gifts Williams gave them to curry favor. [...]
The businessman repeatedly told jurors that he did not consider himself personal friends with the McDonnells and that he believed the three were in a corrupt business relationship: He would provide luxury gifts and money to help the governor through a difficult financial time, and, in exchange, the couple would help promote a supplement created by his company, Star Scientific.
Other key events from day four:
Defense attorneys for the McDonnells began questioning Williams late Thursday afternoon. They started by inviting to the loquacious entrepreneur to talk about himself and his unusual path to wealth, which he did, at length. He explained that Anatabloc, the supplement he wanted the McDonnells to support, came from an alleged discovery that putting tobacco in the microwave would remove the most harmful carcinogens.
“We’re going to stop right here, primarily because I can’t take another second,” the judge said after about an hour.
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Jonnie R. Williams Sr. said he cut short his first interview with law enforcement in January 2013 when he was asked to wear a wire while meeting with then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.
Virginia State Police and FBI representatives showed up to interview Williams at his home unexpectedly.
“Did he ask you to wear a wire?” William Burck, a defense attorney for Maureen McDonnell, asked Williams, referring to state police officer Charlie Hagan.
“He did,” Williams said.
“It was against the McDonnells?” Burck continued.
“It was against the governor,” Williams said.
He testified he then put an end to the interview. “I thought I ought to call my lawyers in Washington,” he said.
“My thoughts were that the governor could be in trouble, and I could be in trouble, too,” Williams testified.
Jonnie R. Williams Sr.’s favorite line on the witness stand so far Friday morning? “I don’t recall that.”
After a relatively soft initial cross-examination of Williams Thursday, William Burck, Maureen McDonnell’s lawyer, began to grill prosecutors’ star witness early Friday — probing intensely about an interview the businessman had with FBI agents and Virginia State Police in January 2013. Williams has acknowledged he lied in that interview. On Friday, though, he seemed to be able to remember little of what he actually said.
Burck asked Williams if he remembered telling investigators that two days after he gave Maureen McDonnell a $50,000 loan, the governor called him personally? Williams said that was “not my recollection.” Burck asked Williams if he had told investigators that he did not “ask for” or “want anything” from the governor. Williams said he could not recall.
Asked if he had told investigators about various appearances Maureen McDonnell had made to promote his company’s product, Williams said at least four times, “I may have.” Asked if he compared her support to similar actions she took for Virginia wine companies, he returned to his oft-repeated refrain: “I don’t know if I did or not.”
Burck asked Williams if he recalled telling prosecutors in an interview two months ago that he gifted Star Scientific stock to his children so it could be sold because it would look bad to investors for the chief executive of the company to be selling shares, to avoid disclosure laws and to avoid insider trading laws. “I don’t recall,” he said.
Burck told Williams to refer to a document he has been provided, an FBI report from the interview in question. After reading the document, he asked again: Did Williams recall saying those things?
“I don’t recall,” he said.
So, Burck said, that document is not accurate? “I’m not saying that,” Williams said. “I’m saying that as I sit here today, I don’t recall saying that.”
“And this interview happened two months ago?” Burck asked.
Continuing his cross-examination of Jonnie R. Williams Sr., Maureen McDonnell’s defense attorney implied that the executive is saying whatever he can to save his own skin.
William Burck reviewed the details of two immunity deals that Williams struck with the government. They prevent prosecutors from bringing criminal charges against the vitamin magnate based on anything he says in the McDonnell trial.
When Williams said the immunity deals only hold if he tells the truth, Burck shot back: “The government decides whether or not it’s true.”
Williams pushed back against that notion: “From my perspective, the truth is the truth.”
Added to evidence files Friday in the case against Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell was a photo that could prove critical to the case against the former governor — a photograph of him, grinning and holding up his wrist to display a watch.
Testifying Thursday, businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. said he received the photo by text message in December 2012 in response to one he sent the governor. The watch on McDonnell’s wrist appeared to be the Rolex that Williams had purchased for the governor at the first lady’s request a year earlier.
McDonnell has previously said the watch was a Christmas gift from his wife and that he did not know it was purchased by Williams. The picture could shatter that assertion. But a forensic analysis has been unable to determine whether the picture was sent to Williams’s phone from the governor’s or his wife’s phone, according to two people familiar with the evidence.
Also added to the evidence file on Friday — another picture of McDonnell enjoying a ride in Williams’s Ferrari.
The star witness against Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell testified Friday morning that he could not remember details of a meeting with prosecutors just days ago — another example of seeming evasiveness as the Richmond businessman undergoes a withering cross-examination.
Asked by Maureen McDonnell defense attorney William Burck if he recalled telling prosecutors at a meeting Sunday — less than a week ago — that he “did not want share transactions disclosed because there may be security issues,” Jonnie R. Williams Sr. asked for clarification, then said, “I may have. I don’t recall.”
Asked by Burck if he told prosecutors, “You know what you did was wrong, and you were hiding it, but you were not an attorney,” Williams was similarly non-committal.
“I may have,” Williams testified.
It is unclear exactly what transactions Burck was referring to, but the exchange nonetheless cast an unflattering light on Williams. Even when Burck read him government notes on the meeting — asking if it refreshed his memory — Williams said he was confused.
“I don’t know in what context or what it’s in relation to,” he said. “I’m confused about that because I don’t understand what it’s in relation to.”
Businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. says he believes he would not have been seated next to then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell at a 2011 event in New York had he not taken the first lady shopping that day, even though just a few months earlier he had summoned the governor to an event in Richmond on a few hours notice with a text to McDonnell’s traveling aide.
“You understood that you would not have been seated next to the governor unless you took her shopping?” the Maureen McDonnell attorney William Burck asked Williams.
“I understood the two were linked,” he said.
Burck then reviewed Williams’s previous testimony about texting the governor’s aide an inviting him to the event in Richmond. “So you’re saying that in April you had to buy her dresses to sit next to the governor?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Williams said. “That is my testimony.”
Maureen McDonnell’s attorney, William Burck, has now started a line of questions that are designed to suggest that Jonnie R. Williams Sr. held a similar relationship with the first lady’s chief of staff as he had with McDonnell.
Burck makes the argument that the former chief of staff, Mary-Shea Sutherland, has not been charged with any crimes, even tough she was a state employee, while McDonnell was just acting as a private citizen, even when she was first lady.
Burck asked Williams if he organized a shopping trip in New York for Mary-Shea Sutherland and Maureen McDonnell?
“It wasn’t my understanding to take her shopping,” Williams said of Sutherland. “But she was there.”
He then agreed that during the day, when he said he bought Maureen McDonnell $20,000 in clothing, he also purchased a $1,600 dress for Sutherland.
Burck then asked Williams if he recalled Sutherland introducing him to a man named James Abel.
“There was a gentleman with a catering business. I don’t know him. She introduced me to someone,” Williams replied.
Burck then showed him an e-mail Abel sent Williams the day after he met him with Sutherland at the New York event. In the e-mail, Abel wrote that he and Sutherland had a great dinner discussing Williams’s launch event and offered his services to help plan it.
“Did Mary-Shea Sutherland talk to you during the shopping trip about helping you launch your product at the mansion?” Burck asked.
Williams replied that he recalled discussing the launch event with Abel at the McDonnell event in the evening, after the shopping was concluded. “He was trying to get business from us,” Williams said of the man.
Here’s what James Abel told The Washington Post about this encounter:
While waiting for Sutherland at a McDonnell event in New York in April 2011, Abel ran into Williams and got to chatting about Williams’s new supplement, a pill made from a chemical found in tobacco that Williams’s company said could reverse inflammation, Abel said in an interview.
Abel said he told Williams that the pill would need a formal launch party. The next day, Abel sent Williams an e-mail offering his services to plan the party and indicating that he and Sutherland “had a wonderful dinner brainstorming about your launch event.”
The defense has suggested the e-mail could indicate that the Executive Mansion luncheon to launch Williams’s new product — a key element of the prosecution’s case that the McDonnells used state government to assist their generous friend — was, in fact, Sutherland’s brainchild.
Defense attorney William Burck suggested during cross-examination Friday that Jonnie R. Williams Sr. had changed his story over the course of several meetings with Virginia State Police and the FBI, between the time investigators first appeared on his Florida doorstep in January 2013 up until just a few weeks before trial.
In that initial meeting, Williams told investigators that he had provided gifts and loans to Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell but never asked for, received or expected any help from them.
After receiving immunity from the government in July 2013, Burck said, Williams’s story changed to suggest that Maureen McDonnell alone was offering to help Williams in exchange for financial help.
“You told prosecutors in July 2013 that Maureen McDonnell had said she would do anything for you in exchange for a loan,” Burck said.
Williams said he did not recall if he had said that. Burck asked Williams to review an FBI report on the meeting, but it failed to refresh his memory.
Burck said Williams’s story changed yet again in a meeting just weeks before trial, on June 16, after he had signed a second, broader immunity agreement.
“At that interview, a month and a half ago, you told the government – didn’t you – that Maureen said she and the governor were in financial trouble and if you would help them out financially she and the governor would help Star Scientific out,” Burck said.
As Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell claim that their marriage was too dysfunctional to support a conspiracy, marital intrigue in their trial is not limited to Virginia’s first family.
Jonnie R. Williams Sr. testified that his wife did not know he was lending $50,000 to the McDonnells and giving them $15,000 for Cailin McDonnell’s wedding. Which is why he left Celeste Williams out in the car when he popped into the governor’s mansion to drop off the two checks.
Maureen McDonnell eventually learned that Celeste Williams was waiting outside and invited her in. But presumably that was after the checks changed hands.
“My wife did not known what I was doing,” he said.
Williams’s testimony also elicited a mention of the little-known tunnel between the governor’s mansion and the Patrick Henry Building, the Capitol Square tower where the governor and other government officials have their offices.
Burck noted that at one point, Williams told prosecutors that when he dropped off the checks with Maureen McDonnell at the mansion, the governor walked over from his office by way of the tunnel to meet with Williams to discuss the loan and gift.
Williams said on the stand that he believes that what was happened, but he was not completely certain of his recollection and that he might have talked with the governor by phone instead.
That was one of many examples Friday when Williams seemed to have trouble remembering details.