RICHMOND — Virginia’s health secretary testified Thursday that he was angry that a Richmond businessman hoping to promote his company’s new dietary supplement was allowed to shape the guest list at a 2012 reception meant for state health-care leaders at the governor’s mansion.
The businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., seemed to be able to navigate the governor’s office in an atypical way, Health Secretary William A. Hazel Jr. testified. That was especially frustrating, he said, because of the dubious claims Williams was making about his product.
“I can’t recall that there was ever a situation quite like this,” Hazel said.
Hazel said he did not know at the time that then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) held a one-on-one meeting with Williams earlier on the day of the reception. At the meeting, Williams and McDonnell discussed ways Williams could lend money to the governor’s family, according to previous testimony. They would later settle on a check to the governor’s real estate company.
Hazel’s testimony captured the theme of the ninth day of the federal corruption trial of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. The health secretary and others testified about the influence Williams seemed to wield with the governor and his wife and about how staffers were largely in the dark about the extent of the businessman’s gifts to the first couple.
The McDonnells are charged with lending the prestige of the governor’s office to Williams in exchange for loans, vacations and luxury goods. Prosecutors must prove that the first couple performed or promised to perform “official acts” in exchange for the businessman’s largesse.
Details about the 2012 health-care reception, prosecutors hope, will provide strong evidence of that — demonstrating that the governor and his wife extended favors to Williams far beyond what is normal for other Virginia companies to help him promote his supplement, Anatabloc.
The reception was supposed to be for Virginia health-care leaders, but after the first lady’s intervention, Williams was allowed to add 25 people to the invitation list, including himself and affiliates of his company, former staffers testified. Records suggest, too, that the governor was involved in the invitation process — an important point for prosecutors trying to connect the businessman to the governor.
Hazel, who is still Virginia’s health secretary, said he was “not excited to see” Williams’s additions on the list because he did not believe that they were health-care leaders. The mansion budget, not the health secretary’s, ultimately covered their costs.
Former mansion director Sarah Scarbrough testified that Williams’s presence, in particular, felt out of place. “The people that were there were actual doctors,” Scarbrough said, “and he wasn’t.”
And prosecutors tried to use one Williams guest — endocrinologist Frank Crantz — to show that the benefits to Williams extended beyond the invitations.
Crantz, who has offices in Northern Virginia, testified that when he was invited to the mansion reception, he was considering launching a study on Williams’s product that would provide it considerable credibility. He said he was flown to the event on Williams’s private plane, zipped to the mansion’s front door when other guests parked farther away and attended dinner with the first couple after the event concluded.
And that night, he said he was invited to stay over at the governor’s mansion.
He ultimately never studied the product.
Prosecutors also tried Thursday to press their case that the McDonnells worked to conceal their financial ties with Williams. Scarbrough and Hazel said that when they dealt with Williams, they were unaware that he had given large loans to the first couple. Tucker Martin, who was the governor’s director of communications, testified that he learned of those payments only in a phone call with The Washington Post in July 2013.
Martin said, too, that when he told reporters in 2011 that all of the costs of the wedding of the governor’s daughter Cailin had been covered by the family, it was because he was relaying information he received directly from the governor. In fact, Williams paid $15,000 for catering at the wedding.
Likewise, Martin said that the governor was the original source of information last year that there had been “no recreational use” of Williams’s Ferrari on the McDonnell family’s vacation to Williams’s Smith Mountain Lake home. Martin said the governor told him at the time that he drove the car back to Richmond only as a favor to the executive.
Actually, Williams had an employee drive the Ferrari to the vacation home at Maureen McDonnell’s request specifically for McDonnell to drive and enjoy.
On the stand and after leaving court, Martin insisted that the governor had not asked him to be untruthful.
“I believe the governor would never ask me to lie,” he said after court.
The day was not without victories for the McDonnells. Hazel repeatedly derided Williams — the government’s star witness — casting him as a salesman whose product claims he found unbelievable. Talking about a box of pills the businessman had left behind after a meeting, Hazel said: “I will swear under oath I did not declare it as a gift because I had no thought that it had any value.”
Defense attorneys also scored some points on the explosive assertion that has become central to their clients’ bid for exoneration: that Maureen McDonnell had a “crush” on Williams and was scheming for the businessman’s attention rather than his riches.
Scarbrough testified that she believed the pair’s relationship was “inappropriate” and that the governor “was in denial about Mrs. McDonnell’s mental capacity.” She said, too, that Maureen McDonnell sometimes invoked her husband’s name to get things done without his permission. For instance, Scarbrough acknowledged telling investigators that Maureen McDonnell had said her husband wanted Anatabloc included in gift bags at a National Governors Association meeting, when she knew he did not.
But Scarbrough also testified that the McDonnells “seemed like a very happy, in-love couple” and that she once told investigators that McDonnell “worshiped the ground” his wife walked on. That casts doubt on defense attorneys’ assertion that their marriage was so broken that they could not have conspired together — another point prosecutors must prove.
And Scarbrough provided another window into the McDonnells’ personal lives, talking about when the first couple seemed to first learn of the investigation.
That came in February 2013, Scarbrough testified, when investigators went to the first lady’s office for an in-person meeting. Maureen McDonnell, who did not have an attorney present, emerged angry and later said that her husband was upset, too, Scarbrough testified.
She claimed, Scarbrough said, that the investigators “were trying to set her up.”
Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.