Another blow to former Va. governor McDonnell’s defense in corruption case

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) has lost another legal fight in the federal corruption case against him and his wife.

A judge on Thursday rejected a request by the couple’s attorneys to file completely secret declarations about the testimony their clients would give if their trials were separated. The attorneys had wanted to file the declarations and keep prosecutors and the public from reviewing them to support their bid to sever the cases.

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer said that though defense attorneys could file the declarations under seal — shielding them from public view — they could not keep them from prosecutors. He wrote that defense attorneys bore a heavy burden in persuading him to review the declarations without prosecutors’ input because that “would effectively deprive the court of an adversarial proceeding in a complex determination.”

Defense attorneys had argued the declarations should be reviewed only by the judge because they would reveal the McDonnells’ trial strategy and give prosecutors an unfair advantage.

The McDonnells are charged in a 14-count indictment that alleges they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams and a company he used to run, Star Scientific, in exchange for loans and gifts of money.

Both have pleaded not guilty, and a jury trial is scheduled for July 28. They moved last month to have their cases separated, arguing that only then would Maureen McDonnell agree to testify — without fear of incriminating herself — that her husband was largely unaware of her dealings with Williams, and only then would Robert McDonnell be able to testify on his own behalf without his wife silencing him through marital privilege.

Spencer’s ruling Thursday might be a blow to that effort, but it hardly ruins their broader challenges of the case. The McDonnells have argued that the corruption charges against them should be thrown out because the governor and his wife did not perform or agree to perform any “official acts” for Williams — a point prosecutors must prove to win a conviction.

Spencer, too, did not reject outright the McDonnells’ effort to separate the cases. He gave them three days to file the declarations detailing the couple’s testimony under seal, if they choose to do so.

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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