In McDonnell probe, action unlikely before Virginia’s November election, sources say


Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell answers questions from members of the press after speaking during an event regarding the launch of the Veterans Employment Initiative in August in Fairfax County. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Federal prosecutors investigating Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s ties to a wealthy donor are unlikely to file charges or resolve the case before the state’s November election, as they conduct new witness interviews and continue to review evidence, people familiar with the investigation said.

The prosecutors are looking into gifts and money from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams Sr. to McDonnell (R) and his family. Authorities recently have obtained new documents through a closed courtroom battle with McDonnell’s legal team, and those papers prompted new leads, the people said.

Also, a meeting with the governor’s attorneys in August spurred prosecutors to seek more interviews, they said.

And prosecutors have not yet scheduled a key follow-up session with attorneys for McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, at which they are expected to outline evidence they have gathered about the couple’s relationship with Williams, who has provided more than $145,000 to Gov. McDonnell’s family and a real estate company he owns with his sister.

For McDonnell, the timeline is likely to extend the uncertainty over his fate at a time that he had hoped would be the victory lap of a productive four-year term. Limited by the Virginia Constitution to a single term, McDonnell will leave office in January.

Timeline: Star Scientific and Gov. McDonnell

But the timing of the investigation could provide a critical boost for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II, whose campaign has feared that a McDonnell indictment in the final weeks before the Nov. 5 election could tar the GOP brand and focus attention on Cuccinelli’s own ties with Williams.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment for this article, as did Jason Miyares, a spokesman for McDonnell’s legal team. But four people familiar with the investigation said the process has slowed in recent weeks.

They indicated that prosecutors had a window to bring charges in late August. But in a confrontational meeting, the governor’s attorneys displayed little appetite for possible plea negotiations and instead appeared prepared to fight any possible charges.

In separate meetings, attorneys for the governor and his wife also mapped out a defense strategy in which they argued that McDonnell was not aware of all the gifts his wife had accepted from Williams. Therefore, the governor could not be accused of improperly taking steps to help Williams’s company in exchange for those items, they said.

Those assertions prompted prosecutors to take a step back and review their evidence again, the people said.

Since then, government investigators have been described by one person familiar with their work as “dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s” in preparation for a possible trial if charges are filed.

One indication of the slowing process is a delay in setting up a new meeting with the governor’s attorneys, said a person familiar with the interaction.

Unlike the August meeting, at which attorneys for the McDonnells tried to convince prosecutors that the couple have committed no illegal acts, this meeting would be intended for prosecutors to lay out what they have found during months of investigating.

But prosecutors have not pressed to set a date for those meetings. And while the sessions will be an important milestone in the case, people familiar with the probe indicate that prosecutors are unlikely to take immediate action afterward.

For one thing, if prosecutors in Richmond indicate to the McDonnells’ attorneys that they have decided to seek an indictment, attorneys for the governor will almost certainly ask for the opportunity to appeal the decision directly to Justice Department officials in Washington, a time-consuming request that would probably be granted in deference to McDonnell’s position, the people said.

The looming election is also playing a role in the timeline.

There are no Justice Department rules that would prohibit prosecutors from pressing ahead with a case if they believe the governor has violated the law, particularly since McDonnell is not on the ballot. A standing memo from U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. merely prohibits pursuing action with the intention of affecting an election.

Even so, prosecutors tend to be especially cautious about avoiding the possibility that their work will unintentionally affect a vote, said Justin Shur, former deputy chief of the Justice Department’s public-integrity unit.

“I don’t know that there are any hard and fast rules,” he said. “But as a prosecutor, you are very sensitive to elections when you’re investigating public corruption cases. You do not want an investigative step or the timing of an indictment to have an impact on the election or to result in the case being viewed as having been politically influenced.”

Prosecutors appear to be proceeding particularly gingerly in McDonnell’s case because of Cuccinelli’s indirect connection.
The Virginia attorney general, who will face Democrat Terry McAuliffe in November, accepted $18,000 in gifts from Williams, the vitamin supplement company executive who gave gifts and loans to McDonnell and his family, a pattern of largesse at the heart of the federal case against McDonnell.

Cuccinelli announced two weeks ago that he would donate the full value of those gifts to a Virginia charity, and he has been cleared of wrongdoing by a state prosecutor who is also investigating McDonnell.

Williams has been cooperating with prosecutors as they explore whether McDonnell agreed to take state action in exchange for the gifts to the first family.

Gifts and loans from Williams came as the governor and first lady took steps to promote the vitamin supplement company, including holding a luncheon at the governor’s mansion to mark the launch of a new product.

McDonnell has said he did nothing for Star Scientific that he would not do for any Virginia-based company. The company received no state economic incentives, contracts or board appointments, he has repeatedly noted.

Williams’s gifts included $120,000 he provided to Maureen McDonnell and to a small real estate company owned by the governor and his sister. The governor has characterized the money as loans and says they have now been repaid.

McDonnell has apologized for his dealings with Williams and returned other “tangible” gifts the wealthy executive gave the family.

Those include $15,000 worth of clothes Williams purchased for Maureen McDonnell during a New York shopping trip and a $6,500 Rolex watch he bought at the first lady’s request for the governor.

One of the governor’s daughters has returned $15,000 Williams paid for the catering at her 2011 wedding, and another daughter returned $10,000 he gave her as an engagement gift last year.

McDonnell did not disclose those gifts. While Virginia law requires elected officials to disclose all gifts they receive worth more than $50, it does not require that gifts to immediate family members be disclosed.

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