Jury chosen in McDonnell corruption case

One is a retired corrections officer. Another worked for seven years in financial services. A third lives in the same cul-de-sac as a staffer to former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell.

The 12 jurors selected Monday to decide the case of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife — whose joint trial on public corruption charges kicked off in the federal courthouse here Monday — are an eclectic bunch, at least from the limited information that is known about them.

Four are women, eight are men.

One juror told the judge that his father was a military police officer during Vietnam and that his aunt retired from the Virginia Department of Transportation. Another juror said his wife was a project manager at the Federal Reserve Bank. Another said she was a neighbor to Kathleen Scott, a former staffer to the governor’s wife. Jurors were told to return to court Tuesday morning, when prosecutors and defense lawyers are expected to give opening statements.

McDonnell(R) and his wife, Maureen, are battling a 14-count public corruption indictment that alleges they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to a Richmond-area businessman, and in exchange, the businessman lavished gifts and money on them.

Former Republican Virginia governor Robert McDonnell is on trial in a gifts scandal that all started with an allegation from a chef. The Washington Post's Rosalind Helderman explains the major players in the case and the criminal punishments he might face. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

After months of public attention on the case, the courthouse on Monday was surrounded by news media and supporters of the former first couple as the trial finally began. The McDonnells arrived separately. Maureen McDonnell, holding the arm of one daughter and the hand of another, walked in first. Her husband arrived minutes later with his attorneys.

“‘I’ve got tremendous lawyers, and I’ve got faith in God and the justice system. And that’s comforting,” the former governor said when asked for his thoughts.

As he left the courtroom many hours later, he said, “I’m just glad to get started with the defense after a long haul.”

Though Monday’s proceedings were light on drama — 142 prospective jurors crammed into a courtroom for hours of questioning on topics such as their experience with accounting, banking and state government — there will perhaps be no more important a moment, experts said.

All the complicated legal arguments, all the haggling over the state of McDonnell’s personal finances and his character could be for naught if either side selects jurors unsympathetic to their cause, experts said.

“This case easily can be won or lost on jury selection,” said Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor now at the Shulman Rogers firm who is not affiliated with either side.

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer opened the proceedings by asking potential jurors whether they knew any of the lawyers involved in the case or the former first lady or governor other than “by reputation” or through the news media. He then read aloud dozens of names of possible witnesses — including another former governor, a manicurist and a male model — and asked whether people in the jury pool were related to or friendly with any of them.

Prosecutors for the first time Monday publicly submitted a list of 61 witnesses they could call to testify. The list includes the businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., all five of the McDonnells’ grown children and former staff to the governor, including Cabinet secretaries.

The McDonnells jointly gave the court 121 possible witnesses for their case, including many of the same staffers and onetime state officials prosecutors intend to call.

Some notable names made the defense list, including House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) and former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II (R). Cuccinelli had also received gifts from Williams and owned stock in his company and initially failed to disclose the stock and some of the gifts. The defense also could call a New York City model who is friendly with Williams and was once flown by the businessman to Richmond to walk with the first lady at a charity fashion show.

One witness whose name appears on neither list: Todd Schneider, the former chef at the executive mansion who first alerted authorities to the relationship between Williams and the McDonnells after he was suspected of stealing food from the residence. Schneider’s fee for catering the wedding of one of the governor’s daughters had been paid by Williams.

Before they appeared in court Monday, jurors had filled out a questionnaire — a form that the court kept secret. While the public could learn some information based on their responses to questions read aloud in court, prosecutors and defense attorneys probably know more about the people whom they selected.

Which is not to say that they know everything. As soon as the jury and four alternates were picked, a woman who had been selected rushed forward to tell the judge that she was responsible for running a “small business.” She ultimately was excused, and one of the alternates took her place.

That was about 6:30 p.m. — after jurors had sat on the wooden benches for nearly 41 / 2 hours without a break. Spencer dismissed those who had not been chosen with a joke, acknowledging that many were probably pleased not to be serving.

“Pray for the rest of us,” he told them. “We need it.”

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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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