Tokens of luxury wrap up McDonnell prosecution

The prosecution rested its federal corruption case against former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on Thursday with a final dramatic display of luxury goods the couple accepted from the onetime chief executive of a dietary supplement company.

An FBI agent testified that he had tallied the majority of gifts and loans provided to the couple by Jonnie R. Williams Sr. over two years and found that their value reached more than $177,000.

Special Agent David Hulser then stood in the witness box and, one by one, held aloft for jurors the dresses, shoes, golf shirts and more — all purchased by Williams for the couple who until January had occupied the governor’s mansion.

“Agent Hulser: Is this an Oscar de la Renta sweater?” began Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Faulconer, as he launched into the lengthy recitation of items.

“It is,” Hulser responded, holding up a gold cardigan on a metal hanger.

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

Over three weeks of testimony from 45 witnesses, prosecutors tried to convince jurors that the McDonnells conspired to lend the prestige of the governor’s office to the wheeling-and-dealing nutritional supplement executive.

They painted the life behind the walls of Virginia’s governor’s mansion as one full of secrets. They alleged that the popular governor and his wife grappled with severe debt and struggled to make mortgage payments on investment properties whose value had sunk since their purchase at the height of the real estate market. All the while, prosecutors suggested, they indulged in a distinct taste for the high life.

“All things considered, I think they’ve put on a sufficiently compelling case that now all eyes will be on what will the governor say,” said Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor now at the Shulman Rogers law firm.

To win a conviction, however, prosecutors must convince jurors that the governor and first lady accepted all of the largesse in exchange for agreeing to perform official acts for Williams.

Jurors have yet to hear from the defense, which on Monday will begin pressing a strong counterpoint: The governor’s alleged official help got Williams nowhere and — they say — he was promised nothing. His product, never studied at state universities as he sought nor introduced in the state health plan as he desired, was pulled from the shelves this week.

Before they rested their case, prosecutors elicited testimony that the McDonnells turned to Williams repeatedly during their time in the governor’s mansion. Williams extended $120,000 in loans to the first lady and a small real estate company owned by the governor and his sister that managed the properties.

At the same time, Williams provided a near-unending stream of high-end luxuries — many, he testified, at the direct request of a demanding first lady — including a Rolex watch, a lavish Cape Cod vacation, a spin in his Ferrari and nearly $20,000 in designer clothes.

Prosecutors revealed Thursday that on the day Robert McDonnell texted Williams to ask for a final $20,000 loan in May 2012, the governor was scheduled to be in Kiawah Island, S.C., enjoying a $23,000 vacation courtesy of another businessman.

Prosecutors have worked diligently to show jurors that although there was no explicit agreement between McDonnell and Williams, the governor provided the businessman a series of favors — arranging meetings for him with state health officials and allowing him and his company to shape events at the executive mansion — that were closely timed to the assistance Williams provided.

Take, for example, the Aug. 1, 2011, meeting between Williams, the first lady and a state health official. E-mails show that the governor asked his health secretary to send a lower-level official to the meeting — where Williams would extol the virtues of his Anatabloc dietary supplement — the very night he returned from a family vacation to Williams’s home on Smith Mountain Lake, by way of Williams’s Ferrari.

That meeting ended, too, with discussion of another gift. By Williams’s account, that is when the governor’s wife asked him to buy a Rolex that she could give to her husband.

Not a month later, Williams got another benefit that prosecutors allege was part of an implicit deal with the couple: a luncheon at the governor’s mansion on the day Anatabloc was formally launched.

Prosecutors presented evidence that a Feb. 29, 2012, reception for health-care leaders at the mansion came in curiously close proximity to financial discussions Williams had with the governor.

Williams — who was allowed to shape the event’s guest list in a way that irked the state’s health secretary — met with the governor earlier on the day of the reception, discussing how he might be able to provide a cash infusion to the real estate company of Robert McDonnell and his sister. Williams ultimately gave it a $50,000 check.

Other benefits Williams received were perhaps less chronologically tied to specific gifts, but they might prove persuasive.

Jurors heard testimony, for example, that the governor personally pulled out a bottle of Anatabloc at a March 21, 2012, meeting with Virginia human-resource officials during a discussion of the state’s health-care plan. Williams wanted the supplement included in the plan.

Prosecutors also posited the governor’s mansion as serving, at times, as Williams’s personal playground to help him persuade researchers to study his product. One especially outlandish example: In October 2011, Williams was able to drive to the mansion, park on the lawn and introduce a doctor to Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who was in town to promote a movie. Williams’s goal was to persuade the doctor to initiate studies on Anatabloc.

On Thursday, prosecutors showed jurors a collection of phone, text, e-mail and calendar records, too, to show that the governor and his wife were generally in close contact — which could help them prove that the two conspired together with Williams. The couple sometimes exchanged phone calls or texts with one another in close proximity to key contacts with Williams.

But defense attorneys will stress to jurors that Williams never even applied for the research funding from the state tobacco commission that he now says he hoped the governor would help him secure. Public records show that the company is in dire financial straits. And they say McDonnell never promised him a thing for his help.

“Is there a government exhibit for all the things that Governor McDonnell is supposed to have given Jonnie Williams? Do you have a chart for that?” William Burck, a defense attorney for Maureen McDonnell, asked the FBI agent tasked with summarizing prosecutors’ case.

“There’s no chart for that,” the agent responded.

During opening statements, an attorney for the former governor promised jurors that McDonnell would take the stand to tell his side of the story about his relationship with Williams. The outcome of the case could rest on what they think of his explanation.

The defense will likely also return to topics that have given the case the air of a soap opera and put a starkly harsh spotlight on the former first lady.

They will try to persuade jurors that the real secret in the governor’s mansion was that the first couple’s marriage was in shambles and that Maureen McDonnell was an anxious, frustrated and unhappy first lady who was barely on speaking terms with her husband.

Prosecutors presented evidence Thursday that the first lady texted the governor’s sister and seemed to claim responsibility for the $50,000 loan to the real estate company, writing, “I worked on this loan 4a year, not Bob.”

Defense attorneys have argued that Maureen McDonnell had a “crush” on Williams and sought his attention, not his money. Under questioning from the former first lady’s own attorneys, one ex-staff member acknowledged that she told FBI agents in interviews she believed that the first lady was a “nutbag.” Another told law enforcement that the governor was “in denial about Mrs. McDonnell’s mental capacity.”

As McDonnell walked out of the courthouse Thursday, he was mobbed — as he has been each day of the trial — by reporters and cameramen asking for his thoughts on the prosecution’s final salvo.

He merely smiled and said, “I’m glad we finally get a chance to start our case.”

Fredrick Kunkle 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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