Federal prosecutors have alleged that former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his family accepted an expensive island vacation from a Henrico hotelier with University of Virginia ties and intentionally omitted the gift on his annual state disclosure forms, according to new court filings.
The May 2012 trip — a $23,000 getaway to Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina, paid for by U-Va. Board of Visitors Vice Rector William H. Goodwin Jr. — does not seem to have any direct connection to Jonnie R. Williams Sr., another Richmond-area businessman, whose relationship with McDonnell and his wife is at the heart of the federal corruption case against the couple.
But prosecutors argued in a court filing made public recently that the vacation was just one example of undisclosed gifts given to the McDonnells by people other than Williams. They said those gifts are “intrinsic” to the case and might be used to convince jurors that McDonnell’s alleged crimes were no innocent mistake.
McDonnell and his lawyers have contended that the former governor followed state disclosure laws, which they say are vague and open to interpretation. They argue that evidence of undisclosed gifts that don’t involve Williams shouldn’t be allowed at trial, saying those gifts are irrelevant to the government’s allegation that McDonnell illegally agreed to trade state favors for Williams’s largesse.
Legal experts said the judge’s decision could be a turning point in the case, because of the potent effect of testimony suggesting that the McDonnells were collecting gifts and luxury vacations while in office.
“It’s dynamite evidence — dynamite in the sense that it can blast the defense out of the water,” said Scott L. Fredericksen, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at the Foley & Lardner firm. “That takes away many of the doubts in a juror’s mind: Was this a one-time event? A one-time occurrence?”
Authorities have long explored whether McDonnell and his family received inappropriate considerations from several people or businesses, probing whether the McDonnells received furniture from a Richmond-based company called Evergreen, whether Maureen McDonnell received free dental work from a Richmond-area dentist and whether the first lady received free clothing from a Jos. A. Bank store.
Investigators have also questioned state delegate and jeweler David Ramadan (R-Loudoun).
State Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), Ramadan’s attorney, said Ramadan had given items of value, which he would not detail, to the McDonnell family and provided a “full disclosure” of those items to federal investigators, with whom he spoke last summer. He said he did not expect Ramadan to testify.
When the former governor and his wife were indicted on 14 counts in January, the charges were limited to the couple’s relationship with Williams. Prosecutors allege that the businessman, who once ran a dietary supplement company, lavished Robert and Maureen McDonnell with loans and gifts, including vacations, golf outings and expensive apparel.
In exchange, prosecutors allege, the McDonnells used the prestige of the governor’s office to promote Williams’s company and its products, including arranging meetings for Williams with other state officials.
The McDonnells have pleaded not guilty to the charges, and a jury trial is scheduled for July 28.
During his term, McDonnell was legally allowed to accept gifts of any size, provided he disclosed those worth more than $50. Like his predecessors, he disclosed thousands of dollars worth of free flights and other gifts while in office.
About a month after the McDonnells allegedly traveled to Kiawah Island on Goodwin’s tab, McDonnell appointed Goodwin, a former member of U-Va.’s board, to serve as a nonvoting “senior adviser” to the group as it grappled with the fallout from the ouster and then reinstatement of U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan. He was elected as the board’s vice rector the next year.
Goodwin, who is also chairman of the board of CCA Industries, a holding company with several hospitality businesses, including the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, did not return phone messages and an e-mail seeking comment. He made nearly $200,000 in contributions to McDonnell’s political action committee, campaign and inaugural committee, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.
Prosecutors are not alleging any quid pro quo between McDonnell and Goodwin.
They must convince a judge that the gifts from Goodwin and others speak to McDonnell’s intent or motive, or at least debunk the notion that his dealings with Williams were a mistake. They cannot use the gifts to argue that McDonnell is generally unethical, said Kelly Kramer, a white-collar defense lawyer at the Mayer Brown firm.
“I think there’s really good reasons to exclude it here, because what you’re really offering it for, no matter how you articulate it, is this is a bad guy with poor ethics,” Kramer said.
And using evidence of other gifts might prompt a debate about state ethics rules, experts said. Such a debate, Kramer said, could create a sort of “trial within a trial.”
McDonnell’s defense attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment. As of Monday afternoon, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer had not ruled on whether the other gifts would be allowed at the trial.