Prosecutors use McDonnells’ friends, aides as witnesses against couple

A stockbroker who is the godfather of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell’s youngest daughter testified that he was uncomfortable with a request from then-first lady Maureen McDonnell to help her skirt state disclosure requirements by obscuring her ownership of stock in a company called Star Scientific.

The former governor’s closest political adviser, who engineered both of his successful statewide elections, said he was angry when he learned from the news media last year that his longtime political patron had taken large loans from Star Scientific’s chief executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. He confronted the governor and told him that he had exercised poor judgment.

And the former director of the governor’s mansion, a personal friend of one of the McDonnells’ daughters, said she believed that Williams had an “ulterior business motive” for cozying up to the first couple and that he played an unusual role in shaping the guest list for a reception at the governor’s mansion in 2012.

As prosecutors concluded the second week of their federal corruption case against the former first couple Friday, it became increasingly clear how they hope to corroborate Williams’s account that he tried to bribe the first couple with more than $150,000 in luxury gifts, vacations and loans: They want to use the words of the people who have worked most closely with the McDonnells against them.

It is a potentially powerful strategy, made all the more so by the obvious discomfort of many of the prosecution’s witnesses with their roles in the soap-opera-esque trial. Some still profess loyalty and friendship with the onetime governor.

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

“At the end, prosecutors can get up and say, ‘Look, that was damaging testimony, and it came from people who didn’t want to give it,’ ” said Andrew McBride, a former federal prosecutor.

It is not without its risks, however. Many of the prosecutor’s witnesses have taken pains, when possible, to also provide information that could help the governor, describing their continued respect for the former chief executive and their belief that he would not engage in illegal activity. They told jurors that some of what they were asked to do with regard to Williams were the kinds of things they did routinely for business leaders and political donors.

Prosecutors allege that Robert McDonnell (R) and his wife conspired to lend the prestige of the governor’s office to Williams in exchange for his largesse, agreeing to perform official government acts for the executive behind a dietary supplement.

Defense attorneys for the former first couple have said that the governor promised Williams nothing for his financial assistance and that the businessman received nothing from state government beyond normal political courtesies. In 2011 and 2012, when the couple is alleged to have conspired to assist the businessman, their attorneys say the McDonnells’ marriage was on the rocks and they were barely speaking.

In a marathon 15 hours on the stand, Williams told another story. He said the couple solicited and accepted his money and gifts even as he repeatedly made clear that he wanted their intervention to help get studies of his company’s product Anatabloc off the ground at state universities. He said he knew it was wrong and that he tried to hide that he had bought Maureen McDonnell a Rolex watch for her husband, taken her shopping in New York, paid for catering at one of their daughter’s wedding and lent the couple $120,000.

Now, prosecutors are putting witness after witness on the stand and displaying document after document in a meticulous effort to convince jurors that they do not have to rely solely on the word of a man termed a “vitamin salesman” in Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber’s opening statement.

In addition to Williams, witnesses for the government have included John Piscitelli, a stockbroker who has been friends with the couple since the late 1980s; Phil Cox, a political operative who guided Robert McDonnell’s elected career since 1999; and Sarah Scarbrough, who ran the governor’s mansion while McDonnell was in office and is a close friend of daughter Cailin McDonnell.

“Is testifying here today a pleasant experience for you?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Faulconer asked Scarbrough on Thursday, after inquiring about her friendship with the governor’s daughter.

“Not at all,” she responded.

Even Cailin McDonnell and the McDonnells’ son Bobby have been called by federal prosecutors to offer testimony against their parents. All five of the couple’s adult children are on prosecutors’ potential witness list, as are the two married daughters’ husbands and the former governor’s sister.

The witnesses have no choice but to appear; they have been subpoenaed by prosecutors and are required by law to show up and reveal what they know. Political aides who have been interviewed by authorities in similar cases elsewhere say it’s an uncomfortable place to be.

“Ultimately, you have no choice but to tell the truth,” said Dean Pagani, who was chief of staff to Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R) when he resigned from office in 2004 amid a corruption investigation. Rowland ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of honest-services fraud.

Pagani said a bunker mentality naturally develops among tight-knit aides to chief executives. They tend to view themselves as loyal hockey goalies, ready to step in front of any puck sent flying by a political opponent toward their boss, he said.

But Pagani said that when a criminal investigation begins, particularly one that reveals the elected official had been engaged in conduct which he did not share with his die-hard support team, his employees grow conflicted, feeling resentful of being put in such a tough spot but also defensive of a political legacy they worked so hard to create.

“It’s very difficult,” said Pagani, who was interviewed by a state impeachment investigator and the FBI about his boss’s actions. “As a staffer, you want to try to find a way to communicate to a larger audience that, on balance, he was good. We were good. The work that we did at the time on behalf of the state was good.”

Indeed, despite providing some information that probably was damaging to the governor, Cox told jurors that he continued to respect McDonnell and consider him a friend.

Former McDonnell communications director Tucker Martin, who testified that he used to speak with his boss more than any other person in his life other than his wife, told jurors that while he worked nearly nonstop during McDonnell’s four years in office, the governor worked even harder.

Martin described his boss, who delivered the homily during Martin’s 2012 wedding, as someone who wore shoes with holes in them and carried a milk crate instead of a briefcase.

“He was thrifty,” Martin said. Other character witnesses likely to be called by the governor when the prosecution rests and the defense begins to put on its case probably will press the point: This was not a man to trade his reputation and political future for material goods.

But Martin also acknowledged that it was the governor who directed that the public be told in 2011 that the McDonnell family was paying all the costs of his daughter’s upcoming wedding. In fact, Williams footed the $15,000 catering bill.

McBride said the reluctance of such witnesses makes them more effective.

“Prosecutors will say: ‘You can believe what they said. They wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t the truth,’ ” he said.

Matt Zapotosky, Laura Vozzella and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

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