Judge won’t delay former Va. governor McDonnell’s initial court appearance

A federal magistrate judge on Wednesday rejected a request from the attorneys for former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell to postpone their client’s first court appearances on public corruption charges because a member of his defense team is out of the country.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David J. Novak did not provide a thorough reasoning for his decision in a two-page order, other than to say the court had indicated on a conference call that McDonnell’s initial appearance would proceed as planned, and then McDonnell’s attorneys withdrew their request to postpone an arraignment scheduled for the same day.

That means both the initial appearance and the arraignment will proceed as initially scheduled on Friday in federal district court in Richmond.

Novak also ordered the attorneys involved to review a local rule that discusses, among other things, what information lawyers should discuss publicly in a criminal case.

The rejection was somewhat surprising because both prosecutors and attorneys for McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, did not oppose postponing the initial court appearances until Friday, Jan. 31.

A simple allegation from a Virginia chef catalyzed a criminal investigation about former Gov. Robert McDonnell. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

Federal prosecutors charged McDonnell, 59, and his wife Tuesday with illegally accepting gifts, luxury vacations and large loans from a wealthy Richmond area businessman who sought special treatment from state government.

Authorities allege that for nearly two years, the McDonnells repeatedly asked executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. for loans and gifts of money, clothes, golf fees and equipment, trips, and private plane rides. In exchange, authorities allege, the McDonnells worked in concert to lend the prestige of the governor’s office to Williams’s struggling company, Star Scientific, a former small cigarette manufacturer that now sells dietary supplements.

McDonnell (R) and his wife are scheduled to make his first appearances in federal court on Friday. But in a detailed motion, Robert McDonnell’s attorneys wrote that lawyer Henry W. Asbill is “outside the United States for his wife’s birthday” in a place “with no airport, from which it would be extremely difficult and expensive for him to return prior to his scheduled return time of midnight on Friday, January 24.”

The motion to delay those hearings did not name the Asbill’s destination, but it hinted that his wife got to spend her birthday somewhere exotic.

“To return to Washington, D.C. travelers must take three airplane flights and a boat ride,” McDonnell’s lawyers wrote in the motion. “Given the difficulty of travel, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Asbill would be able to make it to Richmond by Friday morning. (For example, the first flight he would have to take, following a boat-ride, would be on a four-seat airplane that is generally booked far in advance.)”

The motion, signed by John L. Brownlee, another of McDonnell’s attorneys, said Asbill is “a critical part of Mr. McDonnell’s defense team” and his “attendance at the arraignment and initial appearance — where important determinations will likely be made and where critical schedules will be set — is essential.”

It is unclear where Asbill is or if he will be able to make it back. Both he and Brownlee did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

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Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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