McDonnell’s fate may hinge on his own words

Over 14 days and using 45 witnesses, federal prosecutors here worked to present their best case that former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell sold the credibility of his office for loans, vacations and luxury goods.

Now, the jury’s verdict may come down to what McDonnell says about it all.

The onetime Republican rising star is expected to take the witness stand as early as this week to try to convince a jury he did not take bribes from a wealthy Richmond businessman. He will argue he was an honest public servant who promoted many Virginia companies.

He will face stakes higher than any he encountered in his 22 years in elected office.

“You talk about the biggest pitch, the biggest sell of his life, this is going to be it,” said Edward T. Kang, a former federal public corruption prosecutor now in private practice at the Alston & Bird firm.

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

On Thursday, prosecutors concluded a nearly three-week presentation aimed at proving that the former governor and his wife, Maureen, are guilty of public corruption, lying on financial documents and obstructing justice.

Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the wheeling-and-dealing businessman at the heart of the prosecution’s allegations, walked away with his detailed account of bribing McDonnell and his wife surprisingly intact.

The governor’s former staffers testified that they were kept in the dark about the cash, trips and other gifts that Williams lavished on their boss, and they acknowledged reluctantly that the governor they adored seemed to give Williams and his dietary supplement company, Star Scientific, unusual consideration.

Prosecutors displayed photo after photo of McDonnell smiling as he took a spin in Williams’s Ferrari and showing off a Rolex purchased by the businessman at Maureen McDonnell’s request.

Defense attorneys, who begin their presentation Monday, have made clear that McDonnell’s version of events will become the centerpiece of their case as they argue that the governor and his wife never promised Williams anything for his largesse — and that Williams has lied to secure immunity from prosecution.

The defense has said the McDonnells had a marriage so troubled they barely could communicate, let alone conspire. Maureen McDonnell, they said, craved attention and developed a “crush” on Williams, accepting expensive clothes and vacations. But there was no deal, the defense contends.

The former governor “is an innocent man,” defense attorney John L. Brownlee said in his opening statement, telling jurors they would hear that directly from his client.

What McDonnell says, and how he says it, will likely determine whether he and his wife end up in federal prison, experts say.

“If the jury does not believe him, he gets convicted. If they believe him, he gets acquitted,” predicted Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor now at the Shulman Rogers firm.

Though the governor repeatedly apologized for his dealings with Williams in interviews before he left office, he has cited the ongoing criminal investigation and resisted providing a thorough public accounting of what he knew — and when he knew it — about Williams’s gifts to him and his family.

On the witness stand, he will be pressed to spill details — if not by his defense attorneys, then by prosecutors eager to dismantle his credibility.

But before heading into the weeds of his two years of interactions with Williams, McDonnell will first have to deal with the generally unflattering image prosecutors have painted of him and his family, tackling the distaste jurors may feel after learning that nearly every member of the McDonnell family accepted expensive gifts from Williams, a man they barely knew before 2011. There were golf outings, plane rides, high-end shoes.

Some experts said his best bet might be to quickly own up to receiving many gifts. But they said he should otherwise be singularly focused on convincing jurors that the largesse was unconnected to anything he did for Williams, and that the governor always acted for the good of the state he governed.

Prosecutors must prove not just that McDonnell accepted things from Williams, but that he did so as part of a corrupt bargain, and performed or promised to perform “official acts” for his wealthy benefactor in exchange. He could potentially acknowledge, as he has before in public interviews, that taking so much from Williams was unwise — even as he insists it was not illegal.

“He can’t deny that he received all these things,” said Kelly B. Kramer, a white-collar criminal defense attorney at the Mayer Brown firm. “He’s got to provide some explanation for why he thought it was OK for him to take them.”

The timing of the first family’s acceptance of gifts and the acts prosecutors allege McDonnell took on the businessman’s behalf might make that explanation difficult.

One particularly damaging example: the night he got back from a July 2011 vacation to Williams’s Smith Mountain Lake house — by way of Williams’s Ferrari — the governor e-mailed the state health secretary, asking him to send someone to a meeting with Williams and the first lady the next day.

Williams’s access to the governor’s office will also likely be a major subject of the governor’s testimony. Some staffers have testified that it was odd that Williams — who they derided as the “tic tac man” for the product, Anatabloc, that he sold — seemed to be shaping events at the governor’s mansion. He was allowed, for example, to aggressively promote Anatabloc at a 2011 lunch there — held on the same day Anatabloc was launched.

McDonnell will have to make the case that all of the loans, the trips and the luxury goods were unconnected to the meetings and receptions.

“Fundamentally, the theme would be it’s a quid without a quo,” Kramer said. “It’s definitely an awkward spot for him.”

But he cannot avoid answering questions about gifts. The governor will need to explain what he knew about the Rolex. McDonnell has said publicly his wife gave him the watch for Christmas in 2011. Williams testified that he purchased the timepiece at the first lady’s request and that, at some point, McDonnell seemed to know that — based on a text-message picture he claims to have received from the governor in 2012, showing McDonnell flashing the watch.

But the phone records surrounding that text are murky, and defense attorneys have suggested the picture came from the governor’s wife.

McDonnell also will need to address the July 2011 trip he took to Williams’s Smith Mountain Lake vacation home with his family, and the Ferrari that Williams made available for him to use while he was there. Did the governor truly believe he was doing the businessman a favor in driving the car back from the lake house as his spokesman said last year? Or did he know Williams had arranged for the car to be delivered to there, at Maureen McDonnell’s request, just for her husband to drive?

Because of his unique defense, McDonnell’s testimony, too, is likely to wade into deeply personal territory. Brownlee, the defense attorney, said in court that McDonnell previously had tried to “shield” his children and the public from his personal problems, but now would open up and read jurors an e-mail detailing how he pleaded with his wife to “help save the marriage.”

Such an argument must be delivered carefully. In talking about his wife, McDonnell might leave jurors with the impression that he is unfairly blaming her to exonerate himself. The governor needs to make clear that he and his wife are people jurors can feel empathy for, experts say.

“In the modern age, for someone who is otherwise a public figure held on a pedestal, I think it adds significantly to the sympathy factor,” Frenkel, the former federal prosecutor, said of the governor discussing his supposed marital woes.

Frenkel and other experts said McDonnell has probably been practicing his testimony with his attorneys. As a politician, he is accustomed to fielding questions in public.

The 60-year-old had served as a state prosecutor, state delegate and attorney general before he became Virginia’s 71st governor. His demeanor is calm and pleasant. Seated at the defense table, McDonnell takes notes and occasionally leans over to exchange words with his attorneys. Rarely does he appear distressed or frustrated.

Each day, he greets reporters and court employees with a calm smile. He was chided once by the judge — for offering a hallway hug to his wife’s former chief of staff, a woman who was in the midst of giving testimony about abusive working conditions in his governor’s mansion.

But even at the most difficult moments of his political career, McDonnell has never been subjected to the kind of barbs that will surely come from aggressive federal prosecutors.

As he left court last week, the governor declined to preview what he intended to say.

“To him, this is not just about the criminal case,” said Kang, the former federal prosecutor. “It’s about maintaining some degree of his legacy . . . to salvage whatever he can among the Virginia people that Bob McDonnell is not a crook and is a good man.”

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.
Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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