McDonnell asked Va. House speaker to be a character witness

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell asked William J. Howell, his close friend and the powerful speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, to call the U.S. Attorney’s Office last week and offer himself as a character witness.

A spokesman for Howell confirmed that McDonnell requested Howell’s intervention and said the speaker made the call on his behalf.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to speak with him,” Howell spokesman Matthew Moran said.

The former governor’s request for the state’s top Republican lawmaker to speak on his behalf may be an indication that federal authorities are now in the final phase of deciding how to proceed in their ongoing investigation of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.

In December, the U.S. attorney informed lawyers for McDonnell that he intended to seek criminal charges against McDonnell and his wife in connection with their relationship with a wealthy executive of a Richmond-area dietary supplement company.

That decision was put on hold after lawyers for the couple made a face-to-face appeal to top Justice Department officials in Washington last month. A final decision on how to proceed in the matter is expected by early February.

Jonnie R. Williams Sr. provided more than $165,000 in gifts and loans to the McDonnell family. During the same months, the governor and his wife took steps to promote Williams’s company, Star Scientific. McDonnell has said he made no promises to the business and did nothing to assist the company that he would not do for any other state-based business.

Star Scientific received no state incentives, appointments or contracts.

It is unclear how persuasive federal authorities might have found Howell’s testimony had they agreed to take it. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment. A spokesman for McDonnell’s legal defense team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moran said Howell did not call to ask for leniency for the former governor or to offer evidence about the governor’s interactions with Williams, but to provide insight into McDonnell’s character.

Howell and McDonnell have been friends at least since McDonnell was elected to the House of Delegates in 1991. Two years ago, Howell, McDonnell and others started a Bible study group for legislators that met at 7 a.m. every Wednesday during the legislative session. Now dozens come, and McDonnell continued to attend as governor.

At the end of the session last year, when House members traditionally give satirical awards to the members deemed to be the most annoying or most talkative on the floor, McDonnell and Howell got a new award: “best friends for life.”

After McDonnell apologized for his interactions with Williams in July and returned $120,000 he said his wife and a small family business had borrowed from the executive, Howell quickly stepped forward to defend the governor.

“We appreciate his honesty and willingness to address this issue in a forthcoming manner,” Howell said in a written statement with other House Republican leaders.

Howell, who represents Fredericksburg and part of Stafford County, also had high praise for McDonnell in an interview shortly before McDonnell left office a week ago.

“I think he’s been a great governor,” Howell said. “I’m admittedly biased. He’s been a joy to work with and I think he can look back on his four years and think that they went pretty well, politically speaking.”

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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