McDonnell asked top Va. lawmakers to call U.S. Attorney’s Office, attest to his character


Former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, left, and Speaker of the House of Delegates William Howell, right, are greeted by former Gov. Bob McDonnell before he delivered his final State of the Commonwealth address. (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post)

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell asked the top Democrat in the state Senate and the speaker of the House of Delegates to call the U.S. Attorney’s Office last week to attest to his character, the senator and a spokesman for the speaker said Saturday.

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax) said he and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) placed the call together, leaving a message. Howell later received a call indicating that the U.S. attorney had declined their offer.

“I didn’t see it as a big deal. He called up and asked if I would do it, and I did,” Saslaw said. “He’s not a criminal. He just is not.”

Saslaw said that he has “served with some guys a lot shadier than Bob McDonnell” who did not face similar investigations and that he is concerned that the investigation has dragged on too long, leading him to wonder if it is a fishing expedition.

“Either you think he’s a criminal and you indict him, or you don’t and you don’t indict him,” Saslaw said. “That’s my position.”

Howell’s spokesman, Matthew Moran, confirmed that the speaker had made the call on McDonnell’s behalf.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to speak with him,” Moran said.

The former governor’s request for the two top lawmakers to speak on his behalf may indicate that federal authorities are in the final phase of deciding how to proceed in their investigation of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.

In December, the U.S. attorney informed lawyers for McDonnell (R) that he intended to seek criminal charges against the then-governor and his wife in connection with their relationship with a wealthy executive of a Richmond-area dietary supplement company.

That decision was put on hold after lawyers for the couple made a face-to-face appeal to top Justice Department officials in Washington last month. A decision on how to proceed in the matter is expected by early February.

The executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., provided more than $165,000 in gifts and loans to the McDonnell family. During the same months, the governor and his wife took steps to promote the company, Star Scientific. McDonnell has said he made no promises to Williams and did nothing to assist the company that he would not do for any other state-based business.

Williams’s company received no state incentives, appointments or contracts.

It is unclear how persuasive federal authorities might have found Saslaw’s and Howell’s testimony had they agreed to hear it. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment. A spokesman for McDonnell’s legal defense team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moran said Howell did not call to ask for leniency for the former governor or to offer evidence about the governor’s interactions with Williams, but to provide insight into McDonnell’s character. Saslaw likewise said he had no evidence to provide in the case.

“He didn’t ask us to lie for him or anything like that,” Saslaw said. “He just said, ‘Give them your observations on [my] character.’ ”

Howell and McDonnell are especially close. They have been friends at least since McDonnell was elected to the House of Delegates in 1991. Howell, McDonnell and two others started a Bible study group for legislators years ago, meeting at 7 a.m. every Wednesday during the legislative session. Now dozens come, and McDonnell continued to attend as governor.

At the end of the session last year, when House members traditionally give satirical awards to members deemed to be the most annoying or most talkative on the floor, McDonnell and Howell got a new award: “best friends forever.”

After McDonnell apologized in July for his interactions with Williams and returned $120,000 he said his wife and a small family business had borrowed from the executive, Howell quickly stepped forward to defend the governor.

“We appreciate his honesty and willingness to address this issue in a forthcoming manner,” Howell said in a written statement with other House Republican leaders.

Howell also had high praise for McDonnell in an interview shortly before McDonnell left office a week ago.

“I think he’s been a great governor,” Howell said. “I’m admittedly biased. He’s been a joy to work with, and I think he can look back on his four years and think that they went pretty well, politically speaking.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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