Judge mulls whether to drop McDonnell corruption case

A federal judge said he expected to rule Tuesday whether to toss out federal corruption charges against former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife.

During a Monday hearing, defense teams argued that the McDonnells neither promised nor performed any “official acts” for Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the Richmond area businessman who is said to have lavished gifts and loans on the couple in exchange for their help. If the case does go forward, the defense said, the couple should be tried separately so that Maureen McDonnell could freely testify that she kept her husband in the dark about some things Williams gave her.

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer said he would quickly make a decision on both motions. “I’m gonna resolve these issues swiftly,” he said. “I mean tomorrow.”

The McDonnells were indicted in January on charges they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to Williams and a company he used to run, Star Scientific, in exchange for money, clothes, trips and private plane rides. They have pleaded not guilty, and a jury trial is scheduled for July 28.

If the former first lady is tried on her own, she could testify — without fear of self-incrimination — that she had communications with Williams “that she did not tell her husband about or misled her husband about,” said Henry W. Asbill, an attorney for the former governor.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael S. Dry argued against both motions. He contended that prosecutors have evidence that Robert McDonnell was aware of at least some of the gifts that the defense argued he knew nothing about, and Dry cited an e-mail from McDonnell thanking Williams for picking up the catering tab at his daughter’s wedding.

Dry said the defense had made only “vague assertions” about Maureen McDonnell’s planned testimony, failing to lay out “specific exculpatory evidence” that she might provide on her husband’s behalf. And he questioned why Maureen McDonnell would be willing testify in her husband’s trial only if it were severed from her own case. He noted that any testimony she might provide at the former governor’s trial could be read into the record at her own.

“All of that could be used against her,” he said. He speculated that the defense wanted to shield the jury deciding her fate from “the theater” of her live testimony.

The McDonnells’ defense attorneys have contended that the actions the McDonnells are accused of taking for Williams and Star — including arranging meetings between Williams and state officials and promoting Star’s products — are not “official.” Prosecutors must prove that the McDonnells either performed or promised to perform “official” acts to substantiate the corruption charges.

The defense noted that donors often have access to politicians, citing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s newly formed political action committee’s fundraising materials, which promise a private dinner with the governor and his family, participation in a roundtable discussion and a monthly sit-down with policy experts in exchange for $100,000. The PAC’s solicitation caused problems for McAuliffe (D), who later said that it went out without his knowledge.

Prosecutors have countered that the acts the McDonnells took for Williams were official, even if they were not particularly substantial.

Also on Monday, attorneys for McDonnell filed paperwork to subpoena 25 former members of his administration to testify on his behalf at trial.

The staffers include nearly all of McDonnell’s senior staff, including his former chief of staff, communications director, chief counsel and four cabinet secretaries, as well as assistants, schedulers and employees of the Executive Mansion who worked more closely with the First Lady.

The breadth of the list suggests that McDonnell is confident that his former employees will support his version of events — that he never sought special treatment for Williams.

If the judge dismissed the corruption charges, the couple would face counts stemming from false information prosecutors say they put on financial documents.The McDonnells have disputed those charges, too, but did not formally move to have them dismissed.

The McDonnells were accompanied in court by the Rev. Wayne Ball of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, where the couple worshiped while in the governor’s mansion. Also with them were two former members of McDonnell’s cabinet: Bryan Rhode, who was secretary of public safety, and Janet Vestal Kelly, who was secretary of the commonwealth.

After the hearing, the couple emerged from the courthouse onto a sidewalk filled with reporters and TV cameras but ignored most of the questions called out to them. The former governor did respond when a TV reporter asked if he had any comment on his guilt or innocence.

“I pled innocent,” McDonnell said. “I’m innocent.”

“Have a nice day,” he added before he and his wife climbed into the back seat of a waiting white Toyota, which bore the license plate 5BLESNG.

Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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