Former Va. Gov. McDonnell and wife charged in gifts case

January 21

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were charged Tuesday with illegally accepting gifts, luxury vacations and large loans from a wealthy Richmond area businessman who sought special treatment from state government.

Authorities allege that for nearly two years, the McDonnells repeatedly asked executive 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, authorities allege, the McDonnells 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.

McDonnell, 59, is the first governor ever to face criminal charges in Virginia, a state that has prided itself on a history of clean and ethical politics, and the charges will probably accelerate a push for the legislature to tighten state ethics laws.

The criminal prosecution marks a stunning crash for a politician who was considered for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 2012 and who, just a year ago, was considered a credible prospective candidate for president.

A simple allegation from a Virginia chef catalyzed a criminal investigation about former Gov. Robert McDonnell. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

The 43-page, 14-count indictment adds new details to a story line of largess that was first recounted by The Washington Post in March. It depicts an elected official in financial trouble who sought help from a businessman with something to gain.

McDonnell and his legal team immediately denounced the charges and said prosecutors overstepped their authority. In an unprecedented televised public appearance Tuesday night, McDonnell said, “ I come before you this evening as someone who has been falsely and wrongfully accused and whose public service has been wrongfully attacked.”

He went on to insist, “I repeat again, emphatically, that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams.”

Prosecutors contend that the then-first couple arranged access for Williams to top state officials, allowed the historic governor’s mansion to be used for a launch party for a company pill not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and attended Star events designed to boost the company’s prestige, particularly with university researchers with whom the company was trying to build credibility.

They also said the couple took significant steps to hide the relationship. They accuse the former first lady of lying to investigators about how and when her husband had met Williams and of trying to pass off luxury clothes he purchased for her as a loan from his daughter.

The former governor, they said, illegally failed to disclose to banks the loans he had received from Williams as he sought to refinance several home loans.

If convicted of the charges, the couple could face a maximum of 30 years in prison, though they probably would serve far less. They are scheduled to be arraigned Friday.

“We will continue to work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute public corruption,” U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente said in a statement.

Through an attorney, McDonnell repeated an apology he has offered several times for his interactions with Williams. But he strongly denied that his actions were illegal and promised to fight the charges in court.

His attorneys were even more forceful, filing court papers Tuesday that in unusually strong language accused prosecutors of ignoring evidence that might damage the credibility of a witness and overzealously pursuing a case built on the testimony of Williams, who was offered immunity from prosecution.

“The federal government’s decision to use these deceitful tactics in order to prosecute a popular and successful Republican Governor immediately upon his leaving office is disgraceful, violates basic principles of justice, and is contemptuous of the citizens of Virginia who elected him,” McDonnell’s attorneys wrote.

William Burck, an attorney for the former first lady, said she, too, is innocent. “The Department of Justice has overreached to bring these charges,” he said.

Jerry Kilgore, an attorney for Williams, declined to comment. Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Star Scientific, said the company has “cooperated with authorities and will continue to do so.”

The threat of indictment loomed over the final months of McDonnell’s four-year term, which ended with the inauguration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Jan. 11.

Although Boente had informed McDonnell in December that he intended to pursue charges, McDonnell made a final appeal to top Justice Department officials in Washington and no action was taken until 10 days after he left office.

McDonnell’s indictment comes during the General Assembly’s annual legislative session and is likely to step up efforts to overhaul the state’s ethics and gifts laws, long considered among the most lax in the nation. McAuliffe and leading state lawmakers in both parties have said they support such changes.

During the one term allowed to him under Virginia’s constitution, McDonnell presided over a state whose jobless rate was declining and fiscal outlook was brightening. Even his political opponents admired his civil temperament, and he had faced no challenges to his ethics or character before the relationship with Williams emerged.

But the indictment alleges that there was another side to the governor and his wife. Authorities contend that the McDonnells, as first couple, relied on the wealthy political benefactor to support a life of luxury. At the same time, they came to rely on Williams’s assistance to stave off mounting personal financial difficulties.

“We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!” Maureen McDonnell wrote in an e-mail to an aide to the then-governor-elect in December 2009, after the aide expressed concerns about an offer by Williams to buy her inaugural gown. “I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.”

The first lady told Williams that she would take a “rain check” from him, authorities said, and made good on that promise during an April 13, 2011, shopping trip in New York City. Williams paid $11,000 for clothes at Oscar de la Renta and spent $5,685 at Louis Vuitton and $2,604 at Bergdorf Goodman.

Items from that trip were on a long list of gifts that authorities said the couple must forfeit. They include black and white Louis Vuitton shoes, two gold Oscar de la Renta dresses, a blue Giorgio Armani jacket and two matching dresses, two sets of golf clubs, two iPhones and a silver Rolex inscribed “71st Governor of Virginia.”

Twice, authorities said the McDonnells went to Williams for loans as they struggled to make payments on expensive beach houses they had bought in Virginia Beach with the intention of renting them to vacationers.

First, in May 2011, Maureen McDonnell met with Williams at the governor’s mansion, where she said she and her husband were having “severe financial difficulties” and asked for a $50,000 loan. According to authorities, she told Williams that she could help Star Scientific but needed financial assistance.

According to authorities, Williams insisted on talking directly to the governor, who explained that the rental income on the properties was not covering the bills and said he would appreciate a loan with a two-year term at 5 percent interest. Williams agreed and said there was no need for formal loan papers.

Less than a year later, in February 2012, authorities said McDonnell began discussing a new loan with Williams. First, they talked about whether the businessman could give the couple 50,000 shares of company stock, but then decided on a $50,000 payment to avoid having to disclose the stock. The loan went to a small real estate company that McDonnell owned with a sister, which managed the Virginia Beach properties.

In addition to the Virginia Beach houses, purchased for $2 million in 2005 and 2006, the McDonnells owned a $1 million home at the Wintergreen resort with his sisters and an $835,000 home outside Richmond.

In exchange, authorities said the couple worked to lend the prestige and help of the governor’s office to Star Scientific and repeatedly connected him with state officials who could help the company.

Maureen McDonnell attended Star events in Richmond and Michigan and one in Florida — held just days before a daughter’s 2011 wedding, for which Williams footed the $15,000 bill for catering —where she spoke to investors and doctors on the company’s behalf.

The indictment reveals that she attended the conference in place of her husband, after a staff member e-mailed Williams that he could not attend “due to some Dad commitments” before the wedding. “What else can we do to fix this?” the staffer wrote.

The McDonnells attended a Star event intended at Richmond’s Jefferson Hotel to persuade doctors to use the company’s product in February 2011. According to prosecutors, McDonnell spoke and said he supported the company.

In 2011 and 2012, Star Scientific was also trying to persuade scientists at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University to submit an application on the company’s behalf to the state’s tobacco commission, which distributes Virginia’s share of the 1998 legal settlement with major cigarette companies.

The company needed university involvement to fund research on its Anatabloc pill because the tobacco commission does not accept applications from for-profit entities. According to the indictment, Maureen McDonnell in a February 2012 e-mail pressed an aide of the governor’s to intervene to speed the process. “I’m just trying to talk w [JW]. Gov wants to get this going w VCU and MCV.”

Eight days later, the governor chimed in as well to the staffer: “Pls see me about anatabloc issues at VCU and UVA. Thx,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“Will do. We need to be careful with this issue,” the staffer wrote back.

Even as she complained of financial distress to friends, the first lady used $30,000 of the money she received from Williams in 2011 to buy thousands of shares of Star Scientific stock.

Her attorney has said she honestly believed in the company’s promise, part of a long-standing interest by the former Redskins cheerleader in wellness and diet.

But according to the indictment, she told her stockbroker that she needed to avoid publicly revealing her ownership and then purposely sold and repurchased her shares to avoid Virginia disclosure.

Authorities said she also told investigators, when first questioned, that Williams and her husband had once worked together and met years ago. In fact, they met in 2009, while he was running for governor.

And in March, not long after she was interviewed by investigators, she tried to return clothing that Williams had given her.

“I truly hope your daughter will now be able to enjoy these lovely outfits and show them off on many grand occasions,” she wrote in a note, which she gave to Williams’s brother, along with a box of clothes. She suggested auctioning the clothes for charity, given that they had once been worn by Virginia’s first lady.

McDonnell first apologized for his interactions with Williams in July, paying back the loans and then returning what he called “tangible” gifts his family accepted from Williams.

But he has insisted that he did not abuse his office. Star Scientific, after all, received no state grants, contracts or economic incentives, and its employees got no state appointments.

Matt Zapotosky, Laura Vozzella and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
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