In McDonnell corruption case, federal judge sides with prosecutors on most disputes

A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that prosecutors pursuing a public corruption case against former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife will be allowed to tell jurors that he accepted an expensive island vacation from a Henrico hotelier, then intentionally omitted the gift on his annual state disclosure forms.

The ruling was one of several blows U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer dealt to the McDonnells’ defense as he resolved almost all of the remaining disputes about how the trial will unfold when it starts in less than two weeks. In one opinion addressing seven issues, the judge ruled in favor of the ex-governor and his wife just twice — and both came with caveats. In another opinion, he ruled that just one of two expert witnesses whom defense attorneys wanted to call will be allowed to testify.

McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, are to go to trial July 28 on charges they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for Williams’s lavishing gifts and money on them. They are also charged with lying on financial documents.

Spencer’s decisions were not a total loss for the defense. He ruled, for example, that an accountant can testify about the McDonnells’ financial soundness, which might help bat down the notion that money troubles led the couple to seek Williams’s generosity.

Spencer also declined to put a limit on character witnesses that defense attorneys can call, and he ruled that prosecutors cannot ask leading questions of the McDonnells’ relatives who are called as government witnesses. But Spencer wrote that it was “highly unlikely” he would allow more than five character witnesses each for the former governor and his wife, and he warned that he could change his mind about any leading questions from prosecutors if any McDonnell relatives prove “uncooperative” on the stand.

And as others have previously, the majority of Spencer’s decisions went against the McDonnells. The judge ruled that the couple will not be allowed to present evidence that their failure to list loans from Williams on documents seeking other loans was inconsequential. He said prosecutors must prove only that the omissions were intended to influence the financial institutions. He also ruled that prosecutors will be able to present evidence about Maureen McDonnell’s buying and selling of stock in the company Williams once ran to avoid reporting requirements, writing that it could speak to her “concealment.”

Perhaps most significantly, though, prosecutors will be able to present evidence about Robert McDonnell’s Virginia disclosure forms — including the fact that McDonnell and his family took a $23,000 getaway to Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina, paid for by Henrico hotelier and U-Va. Board of Visitors Vice Rector William H. Goodwin Jr.

Goodwin could not be reached Wednesday night.

Prosecutors have said that McDonnell crossed the gift off of a draft disclosure form, apparently deciding that Virginia law did not require him to report it because Goodwin was a personal friend. Federal prosecutor David Harbach said in court Tuesday that Goodwin was not McDonnell’s friend, and prosecutors intended to prove that the governor abused Virginia’s exception for disclosing gifts from friends to hide his dealings with Williams.

That gift could be explosive evidence, experts have said previously.

In his ruling, Spencer said prosecutors could present the trip as evidence that McDonnell knew that he need not report gifts from personal friends and used that justification to avoid reporting gifts from Williams. That might speak to McDonnell’s “alleged intent to defraud,” Spencer wrote.

U.S. Attorney Dana Boente declined to comment, and one of McDonnell’s defense attorneys did not immediately return messages seeking comment. William Burck, Maureen McDonnell’s defense attorney, also declined to comment.

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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