Federal prosecutors: McDonnell actions on behalf of businessman qualified as official

Prosecutors pursuing a federal corruption case against the former Virginia governor and his wife argued in court filings Thursday that although Robert F. McDonnell might not have done anything particularly “substantial” for a businessman who lavished gifts and loans on his family, McDonnell did take official actions in exchange for the gifts, making his conduct clearly criminal.

Responding to a defense effort to have the charges thrown out, the prosecutors alleged that McDonnell (R) acted in an official capacity when he and his wife, Maureen, arranged meetings for Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams and contacted other officials on his behalf. The filings, in U.S. District Court in Richmond, also referred to events held at the governor’s mansion to encourage researchers to promote a dietary supplement made by Star Scientific, the company Williams used to run.

In exchange, prosecutors alleged in the filings, Williams provided the couple with loans, golf outings and expensive apparel, among other things.

Prosecutors were much more specific than in the past about asserting that McDonnell’s actions were “official” — a point they must prove if they are to substantiate the corruption charges against him and his wife.

Prosecutors defined official acts as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before a public official in his or her official capacity.” They asserted that “even an act as insubstantial as an email or a phone call can, in context,” qualify as the official fulfillment of a corrupt bargain.

“Here, Virginia business development issues and Jonnie Williams’s desired promotion of his product using Virginia state government were matters or causes pending before Mr. McDonnell and his former office,” prosecutors wrote, “and the defendants took and caused official actions on those matters and causes by arranging meetings and the like.”

Defense attorneys had argued that none of the acts were official and that if the prosecution against the McDonnells was successful, it would effectively criminalize routine political courtesies, such as returning a supporter’s phone call.

Prosecutors also argued that at this stage in the proceedings, they need only allege that actions were official and a jury can decide the question at trial, now scheduled for July 28.

Also on Thursday, prosecutors filed their formal opposition to the McDonnells’ bid to split their trials, arguing that courts impose “a strong presumption in favor of trying defendants together who have been indicted together, especially defendants charged in a conspiracy.” The McDonnells, they said, had not made the case to overcome that presumption.

The McDonnells argued in filings last month that only with separate proceedings would Maureen McDonnell agree to testify — without fear of incriminating herself — that her husband was largely unaware of her dealings with Williams, and that only then would Robert McDonnell be able to testify on his behalf without his wife silencing him through marital privilege.

The McDonnells’ effort received a blow recently when a federal judge ruled that defense attorneys could not keep hidden from prosecutors declarations detailing their clients’ testimony. The attorneys elected not to file the declarations, which they had hoped would support their bid to sever the cases.

Prosecutors seized on that decision Thursday, arguing that the defense argument to sever the cases was based only on vague claims of innocence, with no specifics about what the defendants would say.

“Mrs. McDonnell has made plain her belief that the Government’s ability to successfully prosecute her is contingent on its successful prosecution of Mr. McDonnell,” prosecutors wrote. “Left unexplained, and apparently inexplicable, is why Mrs. McDonnell would prevent evidence from being presented to the jury at a joint trial that she apparently believes would inure to her benefit by exculpating her husband.”

The McDonnells have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Their attorneys will have a chance to respond to prosecutors’ filings, and a hearing is scheduled in the case for next month.

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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