McDonnell prosecutor: ‘This is corruption. The real thing’

After a month of sometimes lurid summertime spectacle, the corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, will soon be handed to the only spectators who matter: the seven men and five women who will decide the couple’s fate.

Attorneys on both sides Friday made their closing arguments in a case that has generated soap-opera buzz since the state’s former first couple pinned their defense largely on a brutal self-dissection of their own failed relationship.

The verdict will come down to whether the jury believes that Robert McDonnell — a former attorney general and onetime vice presidential prospect — struck a corrupt deal with a flamboyant vitamin salesman who was given immunity to testify and was described by prosecutors as a “criminal.”

The McDonnells are facing a 14-count public corruption indictment alleging that they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to that salesman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., in exchange for $177,000 in gifts and loans.

In their summary, prosecutors emphasized the litany of actions the former governor took on behalf of Williams and his company’s nutritional supplement, Anatabloc, including allowing a governor’s mansion event that helped launch the product and setting up meetings with state officials. McDonnell then lied about many of the dealings, including on official disclosure forms and a loan application, prosecutors argued.

What Bob McDonnell said compared to what Jonnie Williams said.

Federal prosecutor David Harbach said that the McDonnells rode on Williams’s “gravy train,” lending him their official help when they could while seeking his largesse relentlessly.

“This is bribery,” Harbach said to the jurors. “This is corruption. The real thing. Don’t let it stand. Don’t let this stand.”

But Robert McDonnell’s attorney told jurors that Williams, the government’s star witness, is a liar. Williams’s testimony was a fable he created to avoid prosecution in an unrelated stock probe, defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill said in his summary.

“He pitches the government this story better than he ever sold Anatabloc,” Asbill said. “This is his greatest con.”

With Maureen McDonnell clasping another attorney’s hand, her own lead counsel, William Burck, beseeched the jurors to consider how a fast-talking, gift-giving businessman exploited a shattered marriage and inserted himself in the life of a fragile first lady. He said his client was “gaga for Jonnie” and an unintended victim in prosecutors’ unyielding pursuit of her husband.

“In the end, Maureen McDonnell isn’t even collateral damage,” Burck said. “She’s an afterthought.”

After 67 witnesses over five weeks, the trial has veered from the tawdry to the tedious. Jurors have sat, mostly impassively, through hours of raw emotional revelation followed by thickets of phone and financial records.

List of gifts given to the McDonnell family from Jonnie Williams.

Ultimately, though, all sides rested their cases with a remarkable amount of agreement about one important thing: the facts.

Prosecutors and the defense ended up largely agreeing that Williams served as a kind of personal Galleria for the McDonnell family, providing them with luxury trinkets, designer dresses, golf clubs, dinners, vacations and, not least, $120,000 in undocumented low-interest loans.

And during that time, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree, Williams was allowed to throw an event at the governor’s mansion to promote Anatabloc. He was also allowed to shape the guest list for a state reception meant for health-care leaders — a distinction some state staffers felt he did not deserve.

What matters now is how jurors fill in the connection, or lack of connection, between those sets of events. Was the family’s relationship with Williams simply a growing friendship with a man wealthy enough to make lavish gestures, as the defense maintains? Or was it selling the prestige of the governor’s office to a man they met in 2009, as the government asserts?

“All of the things that Jonnie Williams gave and that the defendants here accepted, the simple question is: Why?” Harbach, the federal prosecutor, asked in his closing argument. “Why did he give them? Why did they take them?”

To win convictions on the public corruption charges, prosecutors must prove that the McDonnells performed or agreed to perform “official” acts in exchange for Williams’s largesse. On that point, the parties do not agree.

Harbach said the mansion events and the meetings Williams was allowed to have with state officials prove prosecutors’ case, no matter that defense attorneys stressed the businessman got nothing more.

“That’s like saying a guy who steals a TV isn’t guilty because he didn’t steal two TVs,” Harbach said.

He said prosecutors need not prove McDonnell and Williams had an explicit agreement. But he said their conduct — in which gifts and loans were consistently provided in close proximity to the McDonnells’ efforts to assist Williams and his company — proved that a deal was in place.

Asbill, McDonnell’s defense attorney, shot back that in one instance, prosecutors were “trying to turn a party invitation into a federal felony.” And he told jurors not to be distracted by pictures of a fancy Ferrari and Rolex watch because there no evidence that McDonnell knew Williams wanted anything or that he promised anything for the businessman.

“Ignore the attempt to assassinate Bob McDonnell’s character with the quid,” he said. “There was no quo, and there was no plan.”

The more nuanced legal debate follows weeks of testimony that tipped into the sensational as soon as defense attorneys put the McDonnells’ marriage at the center of the case, contending that the couple were too alienated to have been partners in a conspiracy to help Williams. Further, they argued that Maureen McDonnell had a “crush” on the gregarious businessman.

The first lady, they argued, was not hatching a scheme with her husband to get rich by abusing the prestige of the governor’s office. She was, instead, a woman in a broken marriage who craved attention.

“They were not scheming with Jonnie or for Jonnie,” Asbill said of the couple. “They were barely speaking.”

The strategy proved a wrenching one as the proceedings enveloped more of the McDonnell family. One of their twin sons described the golf trips and golf gear Williams gave him. Daughter Cailin McDonnell Young tearfully recounted her regrets at accepting $15,000 from Williams to cater her wedding. Daughter Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky told jurors that her parents’ happy, hand-holding persona as Virginia’s first couple was an “act.” In reality, she said, her mother was neglected, frustrated and lonely.

And as Robert McDonnell took the stand for almost 24 hours, Maureen McDonnell sat silently as her husband of 38 years portrayed her as an anxious, unreasonable harridan and an abusive boss who yelled, spent too much money and hit up friends and family for money.

By the time they reached the governor’s mansion, McDonnell testified, the two were emotionally estranged. That’s why he did not know about her $20,000 shopping spree on Williams’s credit cards, McDonnell maintained, and — at least initially — that she accepted a $50,000 loan from Williams.

McDonnell said he moved out of their home shortly before the trial and was living with his parish priest. The husband and wife came and went to court separately and sat apart during the proceedings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry said in his final pitch to jurors that the marriage details were “salacious and sad” but, in the end, “it just doesn’t matter.” Any long marriage, he said, is “a bumpy road,” and only the McDonnells know the true happiness or unhappiness of their union. “You need not like your co-conspirators,” he said.

“What makes more sense is that Mr. McDonnell is going to throw his wife under the bus, and she’s going to let him.”

Harbach, who gave an earlier closing statement, did not even broach the sensitive topic.

Prosecutors did, in their closing arguments, drive home the narrative they had meticulously laid out in the opening weeks: That the McDonnells, in financial trouble, accepted Williams’s money to pay bills and boost their lifestyle knowing that he wanted their help in promoting his product.

The government built its case in part on the testimony of the free-spending businessman, whose appearance on the third day of the trial marked his first public comments on the case.

The outgoing entrepreneur told jurors, sometimes making them laugh, that his dealings with the McDonnells were little more than an ongoing business deal: good-living gifts and low-interest loans in exchange for promoting Anatabloc and, hopefully, getting it studied by state scientists.

Some of his assertions would be corroborated by other evidence, including Robert McDonnell’s negotiations with Williams over the terms of $70,000 in loans to his Virginia Beach real estate company. But the defense portrayed Williams as a crooked aggressor who agreed to testify only to avoid prosecution concerning a separate $10 million stock probe.

“A case built on the word of Jonnie Williams is the very definition of reasonable doubt,” Burck told jurors. “Jonnie Williams had 10 million reasons to lie.”

On Friday, prosecutors responded to that contention, conceding that Williams was “a criminal” but saying his misdeeds made the McDonnells criminals, too.

“You don’t have to like Mr. Williams,” Dry, the assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors. “You shouldn’t like Mr. Williams. He bribed the governor of Virginia.”

Rachel Weiner and Justin Jouvenal 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.
Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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