Prosecutors say McDonnells can talk to relatives, but not about the case

On its face, the question seems simple: Can former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife talk to their friends and family members while the federal corruption case against the couple moves through court?

The answer, though, is apparently going to require serious litigation.

In the latest flurry of activity surrounding a judge’s order that the McDonnells “have no contact with any witnesses or representatives of the government,” McDonnell’s defense attorneys asked a judge Wednesday to hold a hearing on their request to relax that restriction.Prosecutors filed paperwork late Tuesday saying that they did not mind if McDonnell (R) and his wife talk to their family members but that there should be no discussion of the McDonnells’ legal troubles, and close friends and business associates who could be witnesses in the case should be off-limits.

The McDonnells were charged last week in a 14-count indictment growing out of their ties to a wealthy Richmond businessman, a relationship first described by The Washington Post in March.

Authorities allege that over nearly two years, the McDonnells repeatedly asked Jonnie R. Williams Sr. for loans and gifts of money, clothes, golf fees and equipment, trips, and private plane rides. The gifts and loans totaled at least $165,000.

In exchange, the McDonnells allegedly 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.

The recent filings from both prosecutors and defense attorneys foreshadow what is sure to be a protracted and bitter legal battle, drawing intense debate on even the most minor issues.

In their Wednesday request for a hearing, McDonnell’s defense attorneys wrote that restrictions on the couple’s ability to discuss the case with the family over dinner — or to personally appeal to friends to serve as character witnesses — would be “draconian.” They had earlier requested that a judge’s order restricting contact with possible witnesses exempt family members and apply only to those people specifically identified by prosecutors.

Prosecutors responded that they did not mind a change in the order but that it should not let the governor or his wife discuss the case with anyone or contact friends or business associates who could testify.

“At best, it could lead to clouded memories,” prosecutors wrote. “At worst, it could lead to collusion, coercion, or obstruction of justice.”

That, though, apparently did not satisfy defense attorneys. In their latest filing, they wrote that the case is “plainly going to be a regular topic around the McDonnell dinner table,” and there is “nothing ‘standard’ about enjoining a presumptively innocent criminal defendant from discussing the experience of being prosecuted with his family.”

The filing also asks that McDonnell be allowed to make personal appeals to character witnesses, arguing that prohibiting him from doing so harms his defense.

As of Wednesday afternoon, a judge had yet to rule on the motions or schedule a hearing.

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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