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Updates: Day four of the McDonnell corruption trial

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Businessman Jonnie Williams arrives with his attorneys to testify in the trial of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell on Thursday in Richmond. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Businessman Jonnie Williams arrives with his attorneys to testify in the trial of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell on Thursday in Richmond. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

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 Thursday were hearing testimony from witnesses for the prosecution during a trial in federal court in Richmond.

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Another bottle of cognac, for $5,000

Jonnie R. Williams Sr. described during his testimony buying a $5,000 bottle Louis XIII cognac the first time he met the McDonnells, in a small restaurant off the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City. The couple was going to a show, and it was not clear from Williams’s testimony if he’d ordered the liquor before they left.

He mentioned sharing the cognac with two people who had come to New York with the McDonnells: Phil Cox, who led the then-governor-elect’s PAC; and Adam Zubowsky, an aide to Bob McDonnell who later became his son-in-law.

Also at the table was Brad Kroenig, a model Williams brought to the meeting.

“I thought people would find Brad interesting and soften the meeting,” Williams said.

Williams bought another bottle the same pricey liquor over Labor Day 2012, while entertaining the McDonnells, Cox and his wife, and a Star Scientific consultant on Cape Cod.

A defense attorney for Maureen McDonnell mistakenly referred to the liquor at one point as “Louis XIV,” and Williams corrected him.

“Louis XIV was probably $10,000,” attorney William Burck quipped.

Williams said he was not particularly fond of the cognac, but said he bought it because the people he entertains seem to like it.

“Actually don’t care for it that much,” Williams said. “I’d rather have a milkshake from Carl’s.”

'I can't take another second'

Jonnie Williams’s legendary power to charm seems to work better when he’s pouring $5,000 cognac with a male model in tow.

Invited by Maureen McDonnell’s defense attorney to talk about his personal background, Williams obliged, talking on and on  in sometimes arcane detail about the supposed scientific underpinnings of his vitamin supplement.

There was a long bit about a theory are smokers are mildly depressed and there was something in cigarettes – besides nicotine – that they crave to relieve their depression. From there, he launched into monoamine oxidase inhibitors, monoamine oxidase assays and the regulation of dopamine.

A man in the back row of the courthouse closed his eyes and appeared to drift off, as Bob McDonnell had on when Williams pitched the governor on Anatabloc for the length of a cross-country flight.

At 5:30 p.m., the judge decided he’d heard enough for one day.

“We’re going to stop right here, primarily because I can’t take another second,” he said.

'100 percent sure' of quid pro quo

Asked by Maureen McDonnell’s lead defense attorney whether he was “100 percent sure” the governor agreed to help him because of his gifts to the McDonnell family, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. said he had no doubts.

“I am 100 percent sure of that,” he said. “I believe that.”

Williams, though, stopped short of specifically connecting each thing McDonnell did to help him with the gifts. He said, for example, he was not sure that he would not have otherwise gotten a meeting with a state health official if not for the gifts.

He also testified that the governor briefly slept during the October 2010 flight  during which Williams first tried to pitch his company and its products.

“Somewhere during the trip, I think I put him asleep,” Williams testified.

It all started with microwave tobacco

As Maureen McDonnell’s defense attorney begins cross-examining star prosecution witness Jonnie R. Williams Sr., his initial aim seems to be to get Williams talking about himself.

At the soft, friendly questioning of attorney William Burck, Williams described in great detail how he took several companies to profitability with mainly his sales pitches and money to invest. When got to talking about Star Scientific — and how he claimed to have removed one of the most harmful chemicals in tobacco — he asked the defense attorney if he was saying too much.

“If you want me to stop, just say so,” he said.

Williams’s story was interesting, if a bit outlandish. He claimed he had discovered how to remove the “strongest and most abundant carcinogens in cigarette smoke” using a conventional microwave oven. Eager to expand the impact of his discovery, he said he sent someone in his office to buy 200 microwaves at Wal-Mart.

Later, he said he used a modified Maytag dryer to produce a similar, positive effect on tobacco.

In their opening arguments, defense attorneys sought to cast Williams as a charmer and a “master manipulator,” and perhaps their aim is to show his charisma or his boastful nature. They have not yet asked about anything to do with the McDonnells or the corruption allegations specifically.

Williams details immunity agreements

Prosecutor Michael Dry wrapped up his direct examination of Jonnie R. Williams Sr. by delving into the nitty-gritty of not one, but two, immunity agreements reached between the former Star Scientific executive and the government.

Williams testified that the initial agreement, reached in July 2013, protected him from prosecution from anything related to his relationship with Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell.

The second agreement, signed nearly a year later, also protects him from criminal prosecution for potential financial crimes related to Star stock. The June 2012 agreement does not, Williams testified, protect him from any civil lawsuits or civil government investigations.

Under both agreements, Williams said, he loses all immunity if he does not testify truthfully.

“I don’t have any risk of going to jail if I’m truthful,” he said. “If I lie under oath, that’s a possibility.”

With that, Dry turned the government’s star witness over what is sure to be fierce cross-examination.

First up was William Burck, one of Maureen McDonnell’s lawyers, who signaled with his very first question that he would delve into Williams’s long-troubled business history.

“Tell us about yourself,” Burck said.

Returning the pricey dresses

In March 2013, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. said he returned to his Goochland County home to find a box full of clothes and a letter. As he read it, he said, he had a “sinking feeling.” The clothes were the ones he had purchased for the Maureen McDonnell in New York, nearly two years earlier, he said. And the letter indicated she wanted to return them — and, he said, rewrite history about the circumstances under which they were given to her.

“I was like, ‘Oh, no,’” Williams testified. “I sat down in a chair in the den and read this letter over and over. … This letter was a fabrication.”

The letter, which Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry read aloud in court, was from Maureen McDonnell, addressed to Williams and his wife. It spoke of how the couple had made her feel “special” with what it suggested was a temporary loan of dresses for her to wear at her daughter’s wedding and her own anniversary party.

The letter also suggested the McDonnells and Williams had a personal relationship — something Williams now denies — and said the businessman might give the dresses to his daughter.

“Please know that we cherish our friendship with you and look forward to many more wonderful memories together ahead!” the letter said.

Asked by Dry whether he was concerned about his own exposure to criminal charges in the matter, Williams said he was, but he also had other things on his mind.

“I was worried for myself, but I felt sorry for her,” he said, referring to Maureen McDonnell.

Williams said he called his lawyer, who sent someone over to retrieve the box.

Williams denies romance with first lady

Jonnie Williams says he and the first lady of Virginia never had a romantic relationship and that he never suspected Maureen McDonnell might have romantic feelings for him.

That assertion is important because defense attorneys say the governor and first lady were having marital difficulties and that she developed a “crush” on Williams. As a result, they argue, the spouses were not in a conspiracy to solicit items of value in exchange for state action because they were barely even on speaking terms.

Williams said he considered his relationship with the McDonnells to be a “business relationship.” But prosecutors flashed a photograph a text message he sent to Maureen McDonnell on March 31, 2013. That was the day the first story appeared in The Washington Post outlining the relationship between Williams and the McDonnells.

“Celeste and I am proud to be your friends,” it read. “We will do anything for you.”

Williams testified that he sent that text, which includes his wife’s name, because he “felt sorry” for Maureen McDonnell and didn’t want her to be in trouble.

Williams says he lied to FBI, police

Jonnie R. Williams Sr. testified Thursday afternoon that he lied to FBI and Virginia State Police investigators in January 2013 — telling them he neither asked for, nor received anything from the McDonnells — because their inquiry suggested he and the governor might be in trouble.

“The questions that they were asking caused me to believe the governor was in trouble, or may be in trouble, and if he was in trouble, I could be also,” Williams testified.

The admission came as prosecutors moved to questioning Williams about the year 2013 — the year the law enforcement probe of the McDonnells heated up and became public.

As he has throughout the afternoon, Williams acknowledged he had “made a mistake” in his interactions with the McDonnell family, although he claimed his intentions were good.

“I thought the governor could help bring this product to marketplace, and it was not the right thing to do,” he said. “I knew it was wrong. I thought the ends justified the means, and I was wrong.”

Williams testified that he did not inform the McDonnells he had been interviewed by law enforcement.

Clam bake and $3,000 cognac

Jonnie Williams knows how to wash down a clam bake dinner: $3,000 cognac. The vitamin executive testified that he provided the cognac when he entertained Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell and two other couples at the swanky Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod.

Williams feted the McDonnells there over the Labor Day weekend in 2012, when he was also bankrolling a high-end trip to Florida for one McDonnell daughter and a friend. Also along for the trip were Phil Cox, then governor’s political action committee director, and his wife; and Paul Ladenson, a Johns Hopkins endocrinologist and Star consultant, and his wife. Williams said the purpose of the trip was to get the governor interested in promoting Anatabloc.

Prosecutors showed a text Williams sent to the governor while they were planning the trip: “If you need cash, let me know.”

Williams testified that he flew the McDonnells to Cape Cod in his private jet, paid for their stay at the plush inn and arranged for the men to play golf at Chatham’s exclusive Eastward Ho Country Club. They had a clam bake one night and Williams provided Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac.

What kind of cognac is that, the prosecutor asked.

“Expensive cognac,” Williams replied, prompting Robert F. McDonnell to crack a smile.

Williams said the cognac sells for $5,000 in a restaurant, but can be had for $3,000 in a liquor store.

And who drank it?

“Everyone,” he said, adding, “except the wives.”

Williams testified that he had his company, Star Scientific, reimburse him for the cost of the trip as a business expense.

“I was working the entire weekend,” he said.

Williams: I even helped with yard work

At one point, businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. testified, Maureen McDonnell called to complain that she and her husband wanted to go to a football game, but they hard yard work and deck painting to do on their home in the suburbs of Richmond. Williams said he “told her I would help her with it,” then called his brother to get him on the job.

His brother, Donnie Williams, ended up doing two or three weeks of work at the home — and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell knew about it, Williams testified.

“He said, ‘Donnie’s a good guy. He’s a nice fella. Thank you for helping us,’” Williams testified, relaying what the governor told him.

A potentially explosive Rolex photo

A very damaging piece of evidence was presented in the trial of former Gov. Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen McDonnell: a photo of the governor happily flashing a gleaming Rolex, which the person who paid for it says was sent to him.

Jonnie R. Williams Sr. says he was texted the photo, found on his cellphone, in December 2012 — shortly after the businessman provided the Rolex to Maureen McDonnell at her request. In the photo, Bob McDonnell is holding up his wrist, as if to show off the watch that he is wearing and is smirking. Williams said the watch appeared to be the Rolex he had purchased for the governor a year earlier, the one McDonnell’s son said his mother had passed off as her own Christmas gift. McDonnell has asserted to friends and colleagues that he didn’t know the watch was from Williams.

Williams explained he had received the text in response to a photo he had sent to the governor. That photo featured a photo of a man he referred to as Chef Leo and his wife, Celeste, standing in front of a Christmas tree. Williams said that Maureen McDonnell had come to him after the executive mansion had lost its chef. Chef Todd Schneider had been fired after he came under investigation for stealing food at the mansion.

Williams testified that he said he did know a chef. The McDonnells could hire him, but not for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Why?” asked prosecutor Michael Dry. “Because I needed him,” Williams responded.

He said he was “poking at the governor a little bit” with the photo of his chef, as well another picture he had sent earlier of the chef at Thanksgiving, teasing him that the governor’s chef was at his home. He said he received the photograph of the governor and the watch in response.

Though prosecutors displayed the photograph of the governor wearing the watch, they did not show any evidence of a corresponding text message, as they had with the previous photo of the chef standing in front of the Christmas tree. The government has been unable to determine whether the picture was sent to Williams from the governor or his wife’s phone, based on a forensic analysis, according to two people familiar with the evidence.

The picture has a lot of power in this trial, which hinges on whether the former governor and his wife knew they were getting luxury goods and money from Williams and that they were implicitly agreeing to help Williams’ dietary supplement company in exchange for his largesse.

Governor asked for loan in text

With Jonnie R. Williams Sr. still on the witness stand, prosecutors are showing jurors a series of texts and e-mail exchanges between him and the governor — demonstrating a relationship the two men had outside anyone else.

“Stock going great. Alzheimer’s study announcement really helped. Thanks for coming to Romney event and helping him. Gov,” read an April 2012 text from Robert F. McDonnell to Williams.

“Thanks so much for the help. See you in a few weeks,” read another from the next month.

Many of the messages that jurors have seen so far have focused on a $20,000 loan that Williams extended to the governor for some rental property he co-owned — a loan Williams said he made to McDonnell “so that he would help our company.” ​ One message seems to show the governor himself asking for the money.

“Johnnie. Per voicemail would like to see if you could extend another 20k loan for this year,” the governor texted Williams in May 2012, misspelling the name of a man he has previously asserted was a friend.

Ex-governor still smiling a bit

Former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell, surrounded by reporters, arrives for his trial Thursday at the federal courthouse in Richmond. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, surrounded by journalists, arrives for his trial Thursday at the federal courthouse in Richmond. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell has shown very little reaction to the testimony at his trial, mostly looking straight at businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and the other witnesses who came on previous days. The former governor is taking voluminous notes as Williams speaks, occasionally turning his head and peering over his glasses to look at the man who he claims to have once considered a friend, but now is the star witness in the federal corruption case against him. McDonnell also occasionally looks out at the jury. 

Like others in the courtroom, McDonnell chuckled at one point Thursday during Williams’s testimony. The former Star Scientific chief executive had been asked about any instructions he gave McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, about the use of Williams’s Ferrari.

“I asked her not to let the children drive it,” Williams said.

McDonnell cracked a smile again Thursday when the prosecutor asked Williams about the Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac he’d served the governor at others during a visit to Cape Cod.

What kind of cognac was that?

“Expensive cognac,” Williams said.

It is difficult for reporters in the gallery to see how, or if, Maureen McDonnell is visibly reacting, because of the way she is positioned in the courtroom. At times, she has whispered to her lawyers.

The McDonnells have hardly interacted with each other in the courtroom or in the hallways just outside the chamber. While waiting for the judge to wrap up some unrelated business Wednesday, both lingered for an extended period in the hallway outside – but they did not speak. They chatted with their lawyers and supporters in separate scrums, a few yards apart.

But also Wednesday, as the former governor passed his wife on the way to his defense table, he said something to her. They both smiled.

The McDonnells have arrived and left court each day separately, surrounded by their distinct legal teams. The couple is contending as part of their defense that their marriage is in shambles. Maureen McDonnell’s lawyers have portrayed her as the political equivalent of a golf widow, lonely and looking for attention more than material gain from Williams.

Plan to test pills on state employees

Jonnie Williams once hoped to use state employees in a clinical trial of Anatabloc, the tobacco-based dietary supplement that he pitched as a revolutionary medical breakthrough.

“If you gave them this to take as part of their diet, and you started improving their attendance,” Williams said, the pills could boost the productivity of state workers. He said the anti-inflammatory pills, billed as holding promise for ailments ranging from bronchitis to Alzheimer’s, could also lower the state’s health-care costs.

Williams testified that he made that pitch to Molly Huffstetler, senior policy adviser to state Health Secretary Bill Hazel, on Aug. 1, 2011. It was the day after the McDonnell family returned from a vacation at Williams’s Smith Mountain Lake estate, where they had enjoyed the use of his private dock, a rented boat and Ferrari.

After returning to the governor’s mansion on July 31, Robert F. McDonnell e-mailed Hazel about midnight and asked him to have a deputy meet with Williams.

By 10 the next morning, Huffstetler was sitting down with Williams and Maureen McDonnell in the governor’s mansion.

The clinical trials, which Williams said would have been voluntary for state workers, never took place.

Williams also said he used the phone in Maureen McDonnell’s office at the governor’s mansion to call a Virginia Commonwealth University doctor he’d been trying to interest in his product. John Clore, a professor at the VCU School of Medicine, came right over to join the meeting.

Williams testified that he did that with Maureen McDonnell’s blessing.

“I told her Dr. Clore was important and he could cause studies to happen at VCU’s medical school,” Williams said.

“What was her reaction?” asked prosecutor Michael Dry.

“Call him up,” Williams said.

He said meeting with Clore there – at the governor’s mansion, in the presence of the first lady – gave his pitch a boost.

“I was just letting him know, with Maureen McDonnell sitting there, how important this was to Virginia, the governor.”

Williams: I lied about bribery

Jonnie R. Williams Sr. told jurors that he lied to Star Scientific shareholders when he claimed, on legal forms, that he had not bribed any government officials.

As Star produced its annual report, Williams said he was asked, as a matter of routine, to fill out a questionnaire. Among the many questions was one asking if he or anyone else at the company had paid bribes or kickbacks to government officials or their relatives, or made any other payments to obtain or retain business or receive favorable treatment.

There were two boxes for marking: True or False?

Williams said that his assistant, Jerri Fulkerson, filled out the form at his direction. She marked “False.”

“What box should have been marked?” prosecutor Michael Dry asked Williams.

“Should have been ‘True,’” said Williams, who went on to recall the $50,000 loan, the $15,000 catering check, the $20,000 New York shopping spree, the Rolex, vacations and golf outings. “Should have been true, because I was making payments to help our company.”

That was Williams’s last bit of testimony before court recessed for an hour-long lunch break.

Expense account for golf, dinner

Jonnie Williams is said to have arranged and paid for outings for the McDonnells at Kinloch Golf Club in Goochland County, according to testimony.  (Trial exhibits)

Jonnie Williams is said to have arranged and paid for outings for the McDonnells at Kinloch Golf Club in Goochland County, according to testimony. (Trial exhibits)

Jonnie Williams testified that he at times used his Star Scientific credit card to buy items for the McDonnells that he considered business expenses. He said, for instance, he was reimbursed by the company for allowing the McDonnells to use his guest account at Kinloch golf course, and he charged to Star a dinner he held for the governor and scientists at La Grotta in Richmond. (Price: $1,400.)

He said his expense reports were reviewed by Star’s chief financial officer.

Williams testified that he did not ask for reimbursement for the New York shopping trip for the first lady that cost $20,000. “It wasn’t normal. It was out of line,” he said, when asked why not.

And the Rolex? Did he expense that? No, Williams said, he did not.

“It would be questioned?” asked prosecutor Michael Dry.

“I would hope so,” he responded.

'Disclosure was unavoidable'

Jonnie Williams said he ultimately concluded that a $50,000 loan to the McDonnells could not be accomplished through a loan-and-stock deal – not without triggering reporting requirements, anyway. He called the governor to break the news.

“I told him disclosure was unavoidable,” Williams told the jury. “I would have to just loan him money.”

Frustration with star witness

U.S. Attorney Michael Dry appeared at one moment to become a bit frustrated with his star witness, dietary supplement executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. Dry was questioning Williams about the complex financial discussions he held with Robert F. McDonnell about potentially allowing the governor to borrow against stock certificates Williams owned, in hopes that doing so would allow McDonnell to get money without it becoming public.

Why, Dry asked, did Williams want it done that way? “I didn’t want anyone to know,” Williams said. “Why didn’t you want people to know?” Dry asked.

“I think it’s a problem. I think it’s a problem with why I’m loaning him money,” Williams said.

Then Dry shot back: “Stop beating around the bush.” And he asked again: Why didn’t he want anyone to know?

“It may be wrong. I think it’s wrong. It would be wrong and it could be violating the law,” Williams responded.

But, Dry said, it was his own decision? Williams decided to loan the money?

“I made a bad decision. It was wrong. I thought the end justified the means for what I was trying to do in Virginia,” Williams said.

Keeping the relationship hidden

At a one-on-one meeting to discuss stock and a possible loan for the McDonnells’ struggling rental property, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and Robert F. McDonnell agreed on at least one thing, Williams testified Thursday: They should keep their dealings out of the public eye.

“I said that I’d just as soon keep this between us and no one know this,” Williams testified he told the governor.

“That’s fine,” Williams said McDonnell replied.

Williams’s testimony about the exchange in early 2012 gets to the heart of the public corruption case against the governor and his wife — demonstrating, prosecutors hope, that the governor’s intent to hide an illegal quid pro quo with Williams. ​

Williams said the two of them actually abandoned one idea that would have forced him to report the transaction publicly.

“I didn’t want anyone to know that I was helping the governor financially with his problems while he was helping our company,” Williams testified.

Promoting supplement in California

Like businessman Jonnie Williams, Maureen McDonnell has no degree in science or medicine. She is a former Redskins cheerleader and stay-at-home mother of five who helped support the family with a series of home-based businesses. Over the years, she has sold items as varied as skin creams and stuffed animals emblazoned with Bible verses. 

“I’ve been working about 25 to 30 years in nutrition, health care and anti-aging,” she says in the video from the California convention where she promoted Star Scientific and its “nutraceutical” supplement Anatabloc to hundreds of doctors. 

Maureen McDonnell did not mention any specific credentials or business experience in her brief remarks, but she said a breast cancer scare in her teens “gave me the opportunity to realize the importance of being proactive and preventative.” Williams was asked if he would have asked Maureen McDonnell to promote his product at the event if she had not been the first lady. “No,” he told the jury.

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