Sympathy for Robert McDonnell not showing up in former Va. governor’s defense fund

Former governor Robert F. McDonnell has the moral support of many Republicans and Democrats in the aftermath of his indictment. Their financial support is less certain.

One day after federal prosecutors charged the Republican and his wife, Maureen, in connection with more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman, some leading legislators stepped forward Wednesday to say that they think he did not break the law.

But at least publicly, that support has not translated into donations to his legal defense fund.

The Restoration Fund, established in July to bankroll the governor’s legal team, had less than $2,000 in contributions, according to its Web site. Although it’s unclear how comprehensive the list is, the amount shown is not enough to pay a high-dollar lawyer for even a day’s work.

McDonnell may not have the personal resources to pay for his defense. After three highly leveraged and ill-timed real estate investments, the couple was “broke,” as Maureen McDonnell put it in an e-mail cited in the indictment.

A simple allegation from a Virginia chef catalyzed a criminal investigation about former Gov. Robert McDonnell. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

“When the facts come out, I think he will prevail,” said Sen. Jeffrey L. McWaters (R-Virginia Beach), a longtime friend of the former governor’s. “He is going to fight this vigorously. And I hope he has the resources to do that. It’s an expensive process.”

It was not clear whether the Web site was up-to-date, but it listed two donations — totaling $300 — made Wednesday. A spokesman for the fund did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Without specifically asking for contributions, the fund broadcast an e-mail to supporters Tuesday night that included McDonnell’s remarks to the news media asserting his innocence.

“Earlier this evening Governor Bob McDonnell held an open press event to provide his first public remarks regarding today’s wrongful federal indictment against a man who has served his nation and the Commonwealth with distinction for his entire adult life,” the e-mail says.

The state Capitol, where McDonnell is regarded as a highly effective governor, remained abuzz Wednesday about the indictment handed up the day before.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan Sr. (D-Prince William) recalled the hearty applause that legislators gave McDonnell during his State of the Commonwealth address just two weeks earlier. “I hope he will be found innocent,” he said.

Colgan said that he had not contributed to McDonnell’s legal defense fund but that he had been meaning to. “I was going to give him something,” he said.

Even some Democrats who have been highly critical of the McDonnells’ relationship with the wealthy executive expressed sympathy for the couple as they face federal prosecution.

“I’ve been on the other side of that,” said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), a defense lawyer, “and it’s not fun.”

Some supporters said privately that the indictment had shored up their belief that Maureen McDonnell was to blame for most of the trouble. The charging document portrays her as repeatedly soliciting gifts from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and complaining to others about the couple’s tight finances and her need for designer clothes for the inauguration, a family wedding and other events.

“I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget,” Maureen McDonnell wrote in an e-mail to a top McDonnell staff member who had advised her not to accept an Oscar de la Renta dress from Williams. “I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us. I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.”

Though unflattering to the first lady, the e-mail gave some legislators insight into the couple’s financial distress as well as her temperament.

“How many other indictments have you read that could be quickly turned into a one-act play?” said a Capitol insider, who like many others spoke on the condition of anonymity in order not to offend the McDonnells.

At the same time, some of the nitty-gritty of the 14-count indictment made supporters queasy, including allegations that Robert McDonnell had misled a federal credit union on a loan application by failing to disclose $120,000 owed to Williams.

But publicly at least, McDonnell’s supporters stood by him and his assertion that he never provided any state favors in exchange for Williams’s largesse.

Prosecutors contend that Williams, who is cooperating with authorities, was avidly seeking the couple’s help promoting a nutritional supplement. They describe both McDonnells as arranging for meetings that gave Williams the opportunity to try to sell state officials on his product. But those officials rebuffed his sales pitch. Maureen McDonnell is accused of pressing for action on state grants that could have benefited the company but were never, in fact, awarded.

McDonnell has asserted that he never did anything for Star Scientific that he wouldn’t do for any Virginia-based enterprise.

“I think it’s a little bit of an overreach by the federal government,” Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) said. Kilgore’s twin brother, former attorney general Jerry Kilgore, represents Williams.

“I don’t see the criminal act at this point,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said Wednesday in a brief news conference to discuss the indictment.

Howell remarked that it was up to a jury to decide the case, but he added: “I’ve seen lots of governors who’ve received lots of contributions from donors who agreed with their policies or whatever. But I haven’t seen where they’ve necessarily done anything criminal in exchange for that.”

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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