RICHMOND — A federal judge on Friday denied a motion to immediately acquit former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, meaning their legal fate will be decided by a jury.
Defense attorneys for the couple asked U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer to toss the case a day after prosecutors completed their presentation, which spanned three weeks, 45 witnesses and hundreds of pages of documents.
They argued prosecutors had failed to present evidence that McDonnell had a corrupt bargain to assist dietary supplement executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for gifts and loans.
Providing Williams meetings with other government officials and hosting events — actions prosecutors demonstrated McDonnell took — gave the businessman access but were in line with the courtesies to other Virginia businesses, the defense said.
The corruption charges require prosecutors to prove that the McDonnells either promised to perform or performed “official” acts to help Williams. The defense contends that the couple’s actions never amounted to such acts.
If prosecutors are successful, “it would revolutionize American politics,” lawyer Ryan Newman argued for McDonnell. “It would cast a pall of criminality over an elected official any time they do anything.”
But Spencer rejected those arguments, indicating he would provide his reasoning in writing later.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Faulconer argued that prosecutors need not prove that McDonnell performed an official act, but merely that he agreed to do so in exchange for Williams’s largesse.
In any case, he insisted that the government had indeed shown that McDonnell performed official acts when he requested staffers take meetings and allowed government employees to spend paid time setting up events for Williams, knowing the businessman sought those sessions to bolster his credibility and try to persuade state university scientists to study his product.
“He wants to focus on everyone’s conduct but his own,” Faulconer said of the former governor. The reason Williams never got the studies or funding he wanted was not that McDonnell did nothing to assist him, the prosecutor said, but because of the intervention of lower-level state employees who treated the businessman with skepticism.
“It’s because of the actions of people who didn’t get paid” by Williams, Faulconer said.
It is routine for defense attorneys to ask for their clients to be acquitted after the prosecution rests its case but highly unusual for judges to grant the request. Indeed, Spencer had rejected a similar motion to dismiss the charges filed before the trial opened.
With the legal threshold cleared, the trial will now move into a new phase, as the defense begins to present its case on Monday.
That is expected to last about two weeks, and then it will be left to the eight men and four women on the jury to determine the former first couple’s guilt or innocence.
Together, the McDonnells are charged with 14 felony counts related to their relationship with Williams. They share 11 public corruption counts that essentially allege they worked together to strike a corrupt bargain with Williams, agreeing to use the power of the governor’s office on his behalf in exchange for various items of value.
Robert McDonnell (R) is also charged with two counts of falsifying bank records, for omitting reference to loans extended by Williams on loan documents submitted to financial institutions in 2012 and 2013. Maureen McDonnell shares one of those charges stemming from a 2013 loan application that she also signed.
In addition, she is charged with obstruction of justice for attempting to return designer dresses, which Williams purchased for her, shortly after she was interviewed about the relationship by the Virginia State Police. Prosecutors allege she delivered the clothes in a box along with a handwritten note in which she suggested that she and Williams had agreed she would return the items so he could give them to his daughters or auction them for charity.
Defense attorneys sought for their clients to be acquitted on those charges as well. They argued that none of Williams’s loans were required to be included on the two financial documents in question. A $50,000 loan in 2011 did not have to be mentioned because it was a loan only to Maureen McDonnell and therefore the governor was not liable for it.
They said $70,000 provided by Williams in 2012 was extended to a corporate entity. It did not need to be included on McDonnell’s bank records because they reflected his personal liabilities and he had not guaranteed the corporate loan.
Prosecutors argued that they had presented evidence that all of the loans were intended to benefit both McDonnells — no matter to whom Williams wrote his checks.
Spencer indicated that dispute was one for the jury to sort out: “A reasonable juror who has an open mind can either accept or reject the testimony of a witness,” he said.