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 Tuesday resumed hearing testimony from witnesses during a trial in federal court in Richmond.
Prosecutor David Harbach also circled back to Phil Cox’s testimony that all the plane rides Jonnie R. Williams Sr. had provided to Robert F. McDonnell’s political action committee were reported as in-kind contributions. The prosecutor asked how PAC employees learned of in-kind contributions, and whether they relied on information provided to them.
Cox, the governor’s chief political adviser, said that was the case, agreeing with Harbach when he said that meant the disclosure reports were only as good as the information provided to the staff, a “garbage in, garbage out situation.”
Harbach then asked about a series of gifts and loans made to the McDonnells, such as the wedding catering, loans and Rolex, asking of each, “Were those donations to the campaign? Were those donations to the PAC?”
Harbach also reminded Cox of his testimony that McDonnell was engaging in “constituent service” and “donor maintenance” when he sent Williams two e-mails in 2012 remarking on the good performance of Star Scientific stock.
Harbach asked if he knew at the time that the governor or his wife owned Star stock at the time he sent those messages.
“No,” Cox said.
Fewer people in court today with no Jonnie Williams on the stand. Cross examination of Guv’s scheduler underway.
— Matt Zapotosky (@mattzap) August 5, 2014
Day seven of the trial of Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell kicks off with more of Monica Block, who kept the governor’s schedule.
Block, who began her testimony late in the day Monday, has yet to be questioned by defense attorneys.
It is unclear who will follow her. Prosecutors seem to be moving through McDonnell’s former staffers, asking them about Jonnie R. Williams Sr.’s unusually direct line to the governor and his wife.
Day seven of the Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell corruption trial has now opened with the former governor’s attorney, John Brownlee, asking a series of questions of the governor’s onetime scheduler, Monica Block, designed to show that the governor himself was not included on a number of e-mails Block was shown by prosecutors on Monday dealing with interactions with businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
For instance, Brownlee asked, was the governor himself included on an e-mail chain in which she and Jasen Eige, the governor’s lawyer, discussed whether Williams’s company, Star Scientific, could use pictures of the governor attending an event for one of the company’s products in promotional materials? She testified that he was not. (Eige signed off on use of the pictures but decreed Star needed to adjust captions they intended to post with them.)
What about e-mails where staff decided it would be okay for the Twitter account of the political action committee of the governor to follow Star? No, she said, the governor was not included in that discussion.
Brownlee then asked: A Star Scientific press release that Block indicated in e-mails that she would forward to the governor for his review — did she place that Star document in the governor’s “read” file or in his “hot” file, for urgent matters?
Block said it went to his “read” file. “He’d get to it eventually,” she said.
Even the gift log, she said, was generally constructed without his input. Block said that each month, she would review the governor’s schedule from the past weeks and put together a list of gifts he had received, so as to be able to disclose them at the end of the year.
“Was it your experience that Governor McDonnell himself would follow up on that? Or was that a staff thing?” Brownlee asked.
“A staff thing,” she replied.
Robert F. McDonnell’s former scheduler testified Tuesday that Jonnie R. Williams Sr. — rather than Maureen McDonnell – set the agenda for a New York shopping trip Williams took the first lady on in 2011.
Testifying about an e-mail she wrote in April 2011, after a conversation with Williams himself, Monica Block said Williams set the trip’s itinerary, which included lunch at Bergdorf Goodman. Block wrote that Williams had advised “to not eat a big breakfast” because the store had “the best lunch in NYC.”
Block’s testimony is important because it, in some ways, contradicts Williams’s own account of the shopping trip. Williams had testified the first lady essentially kept him out shopping for hours and ran up a huge tab which he covered. He testified the initial intent of the trip was to buy only two dresses.
Block also testified the Williams indicated to her he knew designer Oscar de la Renta personally, something Williams has denied saying. He has posited a more tenuous connection to the designer through a friend.
Now on the stand for prosecutors is Molly Huffstetler, who served as a staffer in the Health Department, answering to Secretary Bill Hazel when Robert F. McDonnell was governor.
Huffstetler attended a meeting at the governor’s mansion with Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and Maureen McDonnell on Aug. 1, 2011 — the day after the McDonnell family returned from a weekend vacation at Williams’s lake house.
Prosecutors have just finished displaying an e-mail chain describing how the meeting came about.
The governor e-mailed Hazel at 11:29 p.m. on Sunday, July 31, 2011, the day the family returned, and asked Hazel to take a meeting with Williams in the morning.
Hazel then e-mailed his deputies, Keith Hare and Matt Cobb, indicating that he would be in a Cabinet meeting. Cobb then e-mailed Huffstetler, indicating that he and Hare also had meetings and asking her to cover.
“It is a governor request,” Cobb wrote back.
Then Huffstetler e-mailed: “Uh huh … Tic tac man.”
Under questioning from prosecutor David Harbach, she testified that the health office had taken to calling Williams by the nickname after he met with Hazel the previous year and left behind samples of his dietary supplement Anatabloc. The pills resembled tic tacs.
More joking ensued over e-mails between the three that Harbach skimmed through too quickly for the courtroom to catch. But Huffstetler ultimately replied: “On a more serious note, I’m not planning to commit to anything but will stick to we will do what we can to carry out the desires of the governor and first lady.”
As scheduler to then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell for a year and a half, Monica Block said she booked him for lunch with the first lady once a week. She scheduled dinners for the couple only once or twice a year, for birthdays, or when their kids were in town.
Block’s account could help bolster Maureen McDonnell’s defense, that she was a lonely, neglected wife who craved attention more than material gain from the gift-giving Star Scientific chief executive, Jonnie Williams.
“You observed that she felt abandoned?” asked Heather Martin, a lawyer for Maureen McDonnell.
Block did not get the chance to answer.
Prosecutors objected to the question and the judge sustained.
Heather Martin, a defense attorney for Maureen McDonnell, asked Robert F. McDonnell’s former scheduler if she had ever referred to Williams as “Maureen McDonnell’s blind spot.”
Scheduler Monica Block said she’d “maybe.” But she confidently answered in the affirmative when Martin asked: “Did you ever say Maureen McDonnell did not know the difference between donors and friends?”
Block also agreed that she had described Mary-Shea Sutherland, Maureen McDonnell’s chief of staff, as the first lady’s “last line of defense.”
Martin asked if Block believed Sutherland had succeeded in protecting Maureen McDonnell, and Block replied, “I don’t know how to answer that.”
After Martin wrapped up her cross-examination, prosecutor Michael Dry returned with a few last questions for the witness. It was partly Block’s responsibility to keep track of gifts provided to the governor, and she would review his schedule when preparing disclosure reports, looking primarily for flights that would have to be logged as in-kind contributions to the governor or his political action committee.
Dry drove home the point that Block does not sign the report, a responsibility ultimately up to the governor. Nor would she know from reviewing a schedule that included golf at Williams’s private club who paid for the outings.
A state health official in the McDonnell administration testified Tuesday that if the governor had not asked for it, she would not have met with Jonnie R. Williams Sr. so the businessman could pitch his dietary supplement.
Molly Huffstetler, the official, seemed to view Williams as somewhat of a comical figure, referring to him as “tic tac man” in lighthearted e-mails with colleagues and saying she planned to “commit to nothing” during a meeting with him and Maureen McDonnell, the governor’s wife, on Aug. 1, 2011.
But at the same time, Huffstetler treated the hour-long meeting seriously. She took detailed notes, which jurors saw on a screen Tuesday. One of them seemed to reflect that Williams told her the governor was involved in seeking funding for studies of his product, Anatabloc.
“Tobacco fund in Va. is paying for this — by request of Gov.,” the note said.
Huffstetler said she could not recall the meaning of that note or of most of the others she took. But the meeting was not completely unremarkable. Huffstetler testified it was the only one she ever had with the first lady, and the only one she ever had in the executive mansion.
After the meeting, Huffstetler sent Williams a thank you note saying, “At times I found myself drifting to excitement thinking about my father,” who suffered from a severe form of arthritis. She wrote, “It thrills me to think that within his lifetime there is a possible method to alleviating the significant pain without costly side effects.”
Huffstetler testified Tuesday Williams’s anecdotes genuinely led her mind to wander to her father. But the note, she said, was mostly just her being polite. Neither the governor nor the state health secretary followed up with her, she said.
Robert F. McDonnell defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill has just completed cross-examining former health department official Molly Huffstetler, attempting to minimize the Aug. 1, 2011, meeting she attended with Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and Maureen McDonnell and suggesting Williams may have been dishonest during the session.
Repeatedly, he asked her whether it was a routine occurrence during her time in state government that she would be asked by Health Secretary Bill Hazel to take meetings with people pitching ideas. “I would say often,” she said. “It was a function of the office.”
She said she did not feel any pressure to take any action as a result of the meeting and, in fact, she was never aware of any work that was done by the health office to move Williams’s project forward. When she wrote in an e-mail before attending the meeting that she planned to tell Williams that she would work to accomplish the desires of the governor, she agreed with Asbill that she understood the governor’s wishes to be simply that she attend the meeting.
And she agreed with Asbill’s characterization of the note she wrote to Williams following the meeting — one in which she urged him to pursue studies to confirm his glowing anecdotes about Anatabloc — as a “blow-off” e-mail.
“No, with a smile?” Asbill said, recalling the words of McDonnell’s scheduler Monica Block, who testified Monday that the governor urged to his staff to take that approach with supplicants.
“Yes,” she said, indicating that she had consulted with no one before sending the e-mail and that she felt empowered at the time to send it without further direction.
Asbill also called Huffstetler’s attention to a note she had taken during the meeting, in which she wrote that the “tobacco fund in VA is paying for studies — by request of Gov.”
She testified that she did not remember the specifics of her conversation with Williams on that point but that she considers herself a good note taker and believed that the note indicated that Williams told her tobacco commission-funded studies were then underway. That would not have been true. At the time, Williams was discussing seeking tobacco commission grant funding but an application was never submitted and the commission never provided dollars.
Stephen Michael Hauss, a defense attorney for Maureen McDonnell, suggested that the first lady’s chief of staff engineered an August 2011 meeting between a top state health official and Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
Prosecutors have previously introduced an e-mail into evidence that shows then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell directing Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Hazel to send a deputy to meet with the Star executive the next morning. The governor sent the message about midnight, after returning in Williams’s Ferrari from a stay at his Smith Mountain Lake home.
But Hauss noted that it was chief of staff Mary-Shea Sutherland who met Hazel’s deputy at the mansion door and showed her to the meeting room. Hauss asked of Sutherland sat in on the meeting. Molly Huffstetler, the deputy, could not remember.
Huffstetler said in e-mails to colleagues before the meeting that she had no intention to commit to anything at her meeting with the Star executive they derisively referred to as “tic tac man.”
But, she added, “We will do what we can to carry out the desires of the Governor and the first lady.”
Hauss questioned how she purported to know the first lady’s “desires” if she had never spoken with Maureen McDonnell about Anatabloc before or after the meeting. During the meeting itself, Huffstetler said, Maureen McDonnell was attentive but mostly silent.
“You had no idea what Mrs. McDonnell’s desires were,” Hauss said.
When Hauss finished with his cross examination, prosecutor David Harbach tried to drive home the point that the McDonnells made a top health official grant an audience to the “tic tac man.”
When Huffstetler got the request, Harbach asked, why didn’t she say, “I’m not meeting with this guy. He’s a nut.”
“I wouldn’t have considered that an option,” Huffstetler said, explaining that she had to take a meeting if the governor asked for it.