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Updates: Day two of the McDonnell corruption trial

July 29, 2014
Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell arrives with his legal team for his trial in Richmond on Monday. (Jay Westcott/Reuters)

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell arrives with his legal team for his trial in Richmond on Monday. (Jay Westcott/Reuters)

Former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, are battling a 14-count public corruption indictment that alleges they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to a Richmond-area businessman, and in exchange, the businessman lavished them with gifts and money. Jurors on Wednesday will hear testimony from witnesses for the prosecution during a trial in federal court in Richmond.

Background: Five things to watch | Timeline: The probe | The players: Who to watch | Twitter: Latest

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

At 5:30 p.m., the judge sent jurors home with an admonishment not to talk about the case with family or friends. He warned them that today would be the hardest day because there would be intense news coverage, but he assured them the temptation would subside.

He also assured jurors that the case will start to move more quickly.

“I know you’re thinking as you sit there, ‘I will be in this courtroom the rest of my natural life,’” he said. “I know it’s a tough deal.”

The trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday with more testimony from Fulkerson.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Prosecutors spent the last 45 minutes of the day questioning Jerri Fulkerson, longtime aide to Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

She said a large part of her job was reading Williams’s email and forwarding only the most important ones to the Star chief, who she said had trouble reading because he is dyslexic.

She testified about making arrangements, at Williams’s direction, for the McDonnells to use Williams’s jet. McDonnell used it to fly to California and back one day. Another time, she said, the governor and first lady used it to fly to Houston, where Virginia Commonwealth University was competing in the Final Four. That trip was a difficult one to arrange, she said, because Maureen McDonnell had to be back in Richmond the first day. But she told the governor’s scheduler that she would make it work – keeping pilots on standby in Houston – “because it was the governor’s wife,” Fulkerson wrote in an email at the time.

Fulkerson testified that she wrote a $50,000 check at Williams’s direction from his Starwood Trust to Maureen McDonnell. And she also wrote a $15,000 check for wedding catering. She read from documents indicating that the loan was for two years, with an interest rate of 5 percent.

Fulkerson also testified that Williams had invited Bob McDonnell to speak to the Roskamp Institute, an Alzheimer’s research center affiliated with Star. The governor said he couldn’t attend the June 1 event because his daughter was going to be married a few days later.

“He was very disappointed,” Fulkerson asked when asked about Williams’s reaction. “He really wanted the governor there.”

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

The third witness up for prosecutors is Jerri Fulkerson, the longtime assistant to the case’s key witness, Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Fulkerson’s name has been in the news lately, because prosecutors successfully moved to grant her immunity for her testimony, and defense attorneys asked to subpoena materials related to some of her alleged misdeeds as a notary. (They withdrew that request Tuesday morning.)

Defense attorney William Burck said in his opening statement that Williams actually directed Fulkerson, his assistant for 18 some years, to forge his signature on documents — one of the misdeeds she was apparently worried about testifying about without immunity. He said that showed Williams “uses people. He manipulates them to promote his own agenda.”

But court filings show Fulkerson has cooperated with prosecutors, and she might be able to provide some insight on her longtime boss’s relationship with the McDonnells. She signed her name on a blank, $15,000 check to pay for the catering costs at the McDonnells’ daughter’s wedding — the gift which, in some respects, launched the entire saga.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·
Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell, center, flanked by daughters Rachel, left, and Cailin, right, heads into the Federal Courthouse in Richmond on Monday. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, James Wallace)

Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell, center, flanked by daughters Rachel, left, and Cailin, right, heads into the Federal Courthouse in Richmond on Monday. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, James Wallace)

Cailin McDonnell-Young, the McDonnells’ daughter whose 2011 wedding is shaping up to be a major pillar in prosecutors’ corruption case against her parents, insisted Tuesday that it was always her intent to pay for all the costs associated with her nuptials when she was called as the prosecution’s second witness Tuesday.

But responding to questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber, she was forced to acknowledge that her intent did not turn into reality — and that others paid for many costs and trinkets.

A friend, for example, let the bridal party use a limo to get from the ceremony to the reception, McDonnell-Young testified. She said she paid only $43 on a dress that was valued over $1,000 at a Virginia Beach dress shop. And she said others footed the bill for bridesmaids’ jewelry, engraved silver picture frames for guests and even the wedding rings.

McDonnell-Young cried softly on the witness stand soon after Aber questioned her about the items, as the prosecutor flashed wedding pictures on a screen in the courtroom. The judge soon declared a brief break in the proceedings.

After taking a break to allow the witness to compose herself, the McDonnells’ daughter resumed her testimony.

She recalled how her parents took the couple to the airport for their honeymoon in the wee hours of the morning, with someone from the governor’s executive protection unit behind the wheel.

On the ride to the airport, McDonnell-Young recalled that her mother presented the couple with a wedding gift: 1,000 shares of Star Scientific stock. Maureen McDonnell had prepared a certificate of some kind to symbolize the gift.

“She thought it was going to be really good [as an investment],” McDonnell-Young said.

McDonnell-Young said she was familiar with the product, which her mother had recommended to her because “I have a lot of joint and body issues.” But she apparently was not aware that her mother had bought the shares with part of the $50,000 Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams had lent the first lady. Young said her mother told her she’d made the stock purchase with part of the inheritance Maureen McDonnell received after her father’s death.

Maureen McDonnell told Young that she planned to give 1,000 shares of Star stock to each of her children when they married.

Responding to questions from Robert F. McDonnell’s attorney, McDonnell-Young told jurors she was now embarrassed to have accepted gifts or other contributions for her wedding, and she wished she could go back in time and throw a simple, “small, backyard” affair.

“Our wedding now has this black cloud over it,” she said. “You can’t look back at it with a happy memory.”

McDonnell-Young said the limousine came from a doctor and longtime family friend who is now deceased, and the picture frames given to guests came from state Del. David Ramadan (R). She said the governor had nothing to do with either gift, nor was he involved in procuring the steeply discounted dress.

“No, sir. That was all me,” she told her father’s defense attorney.

McDonnell-Young said it was “very flattering” to have received the niceties, but she was “not going out asking for any gifts or anything from anybody.” She said she and her husband put more than $12,000 of their own money into the wedding, even depositing regular sums from their paychecks into a “wedding fund.”

On the evening Dec. 25, 2012, after Christmas dinner was over the and the dishes all cleaned up, Maureen McDonnell sat down McDonnell-Young and her twin brothers. The first lady had printed forms for all of them, said McDonnell-Young, who said she could not recall if her father or two sisters were there.

The forms would be used to create stock accounts for each of them, allowing Maureen McDonnell to move Star Scientific shares into the children’s names. Maureen McDonnell urged them to fill out the forms right away — before the start of the new year– because of some change in tax policy that presumably would cut into the value.

Prosecutors have alleged that Maureen McDonnell transferred her own shares of Star stock to her children in late in December 2012 to evade state reporting requirements; the McDonnells made the transfer, prosecutors have alleged, so that at the time they submitted state disclosure forms, they could claim that they owned no stock that needed reporting.

But McDonnell-Young told the jury that the stock being transferred to her that December was part of her parents’ wedding gift, which also included some furniture. McDonnell-Young had married in June of 2011, a year and a half earlier. But she said she and her husband had never gotten around to opening the stock brokerage account necessary to formally take possession of the shares.

She scrambled to meet the end-of-the-year deadline, swapping e-mails with a broker on New Year’s Eve to make the transfer happen.

“I know mom really wanted it done last year,” Young wrote in an e-mail read aloud to the jury.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

The prosecutors’ first witness, catering manager Ryan Greer, described to jurors the intimate details of the catering contract for the 2011 wedding of the McDonnells’ daughter Cailin.

The bill — which prosecutors say was picked up by Jonnie Williams — is what, in some respects, helped spur the federal probe. Robert F. McDonnell, as governor, did not disclose the gift — claiming initially his daughter and her husband paid their own way and that Williams had footed the bill as a wedding gift to them — although Greer testified about how the governor had made several handwritten notes on the contract.

Much of Greer’s testimony centered around someone not on the witness list for either side: Todd Schneider, the former chef at the governor’s mansion. Schneider, who was under investigation for allegedly stealing food from the mansion, first alerted authorities to the unusually close relationship between Williams and the McDonnells.

Greer testified that Schneider instructed him to cash a check from Williams for the catering at Cailin McDonnell’s wedding. He said he deposited the check instead after the bank refused to cash it because the catering company held a business account. Greer also testified that Schneider instructed him not to tell anyone about the check.

Greer also described a conversation he had with the former first lady. He testified that Maureen McDonnell refused to pay for a generator for her daughter’s wedding and said the company readjusted the cost of gratituties and covered the cost of the generator.

Defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill opened his cross-examination by asking: “ What’s Chef Todd up to these days?”

Greer responded: “Last I heard he’s in Florida.” Greer indicated he had not spoken to Schneider since 2011.

Asbil then asked if Greer knew of any reason “Why he’s not here today instead of you.”

Responded Greer: “Good question?”

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

McDonnell’s defense attorney, John Brownlee, made clear he will ask the jury not just to find the former governor not guilty, but to conclude that he was a good man. In Brownlee’s words, McDonnell was “one of the most successful modern day” governors of Virginia. He got 80,000 employed. He had lived a life of “purpose” and “integrity,” served in the Army and as state attorney general.

“The prosecutors are now asking you to ignore all of that and simply assume — because they cannot prove it — that he threw it all away so he could get part of a bill paid. That did not happen,” Brownlee said.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

With opening statements in the McDonnell trial finished, it’s now clear: the McDonnells will contend their broken marriage made it impossible for them to conspire with each other and dietary supplement company executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

John Brownlee, Robert F. McDonnell’s attorney, told jurors that McDonnell’s work as governor “took a toll” on his family, especially his wife. Though the governor tried to “shield the dysfunction of his marriage from his youngest children and the public,” behind the scenes, the relationship was in shambles, Brownlee said.

At one point, Brownlee said, Maureen McDonnell told her husband she “hated him.” She complained of not having enough money, and of him being away too much. What emerged was a rift so wide that “an outsider, in this case another man, could invade and poison the marriage,” Brownlee said.

Brownlee said the governor never embarrassed his wife in public, and at least once, he appealed to her to in an e-mail to “help save the marriage.” Brownlee said jurors will get to hear Robert McDonnell read the e-mail, and, “It will show you just how broken things were in their marriage.”

Brownlee said the note “fell upon blind eyes and deaf ears,” as the night it was received, Maureen McDonnell was “distracted with other interests.”

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Robert F. McDonnell’s lawyer, John Brownlee, promised jurors during opening remarks that the former governor will take the stand in his own defense.

He noted the law doesn’t require it. But even so, he said McDonnell will take the stand and tell jurors “what he did and why he did it.”

“He was not hiding anything before — he will not hide anything now,” Brownlee said. “He will not hide from their false allegations.”

  • Justin Jouvenal
  • ·

Even though there was nothing illegal about providing gifts to Virginia’s first lady, Robert F. McDonnell’s defense attorney John L. Brownlee said, investigators took an interest in Jonnie Williams, who had previously been the subject of securities fraud investigations.

But rather than go after Williams for securities fraud, Brownlee said, prosecutors were mostly interested in using Williams to go after McDonnell — spending the past two years reading all of the governor’s text messages and e-mails, forcing his five children and two sons-in-law to testify before a grand jury.

He said investigators even flew to California to interview 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his wife “to find someone to say something bad about Bob McDonnell.”

In an act of “desperation,” Brownlee said, investigators even used the governor’s security detail to “eavesdrop on private conversations and report what they saw and heard.”

But there was no dirt to be had, Brownlee said. The only person who will say anything bad about McDonnell, Brownlee said, is Williams.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Robert F. McDonnell’s defense attorney John L. Brownlee launched his opening statement on behalf of the former governor by getting right to the point: “Bob McDonnell is an innocent man.”

But Jonnie Williams, Brownlee suggested, was something else entirely.

“The federal government’s case depends almost entirely on the testimony of a dishonest man,” he said.

Brownlee ticked through the highlights of McDonnell’s long life in public service, from his days in the Army, as a state prosecutor, state delegate, attorney general and governor. He even mentioned that McDonnell’s daughter, Jeanine McDonnell, was an Iraq war veteran. As governor, Brownlee said, McDonnell worked 14 to 16 hours a day, “without a hint of scandal.”

He told jurors that prosecutors were asking them to believe that “Bob McDonnell threw it all away so he could get part of a catering bill [paid] for his daughter’s wedding.”

Brownlee told jurors that investigators first stumbled on the relationship between Williams and the McDonnells more than two years ago, in May 2012, while investigating a chef who had been accused of stealing food from the Governor’s Mansion.

Chef Todd Schneider, who had catered the mansion wedding, told investigators that Maureen McDonnell had developed a close relationship with Williams. Brownlee said looked into the claim and found that Williams had, indeed, provided money and gifts to Maureen McDonnell. But Brownlee said investigators initially concluded there was nothing illegal about that because state law at the time only required elected officials to disclose gifts to themselves, not to their immediate spouses or other immediate family members.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

During his opening remarks, defense attorney William Burck told jurors to think about their iPhones, how once they get used to one version, before too long, a brand new version hits the market.

This, he said, is the right analogy for Jonnie Williams, the star witness in the government’s case at the McDonnells, who he claimed has changed and hedged his story repeatedly to make fit prosecutors’ case.

First, he said, there was Williams version 1.0: When authorities first approached the executive unannounced at his home, Williams told them he asked the governor and first lady for nothing.

Only months later, as he realized that authorities were also investigating Williams for $10 million stock fraud, did Williams, accompanied by six lawyers, first claim to authorities that he had what Burck called a “kinda sorta” agreement with the first couple.

He said Williams’ story has only gotten better over time, changing even up until a few weeks ago.

“The real question which Jonnie Williams are you supposed to believe?” he asked.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Maureen McDonnell was not a wife scheming with her governor husband so they could enrich themselves; she was instead a woman craving attention after her own marriage broke down, her defense attorney said in court Tuesday.

PROFILE: Former first lady Maureen McDonnell

Positing Maureen McDonnell as “collateral damage” — and noting she herself was not a public official — defense attorney William Burck made waves when he suggested his client had romantic feelings for prosecutors’ star witness, the dietary supplement executive at the center of prosecutors’ case.

PROFILE: Jonnie Williams

Burck said the McDonnells’ marriage had “broken down” during the alleged conspiracy, and she and Robert F. McDonnell were “barely on speaking terms.” Dietary supplement company executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. took advantage of her genuine interest in so-called “nutraceuticals,” and of her interest in his attention, Burck said.

“Maureen immediately gravitated toward Jonnie,” Burck said. “He showered her with attention she craved.”

Burck said one staffer would testify Maureen McDonnell considered Williams her ” favorite playmate,” and some would view their relationship as inappropriate. They exchanged 1,200 texts and phone calls during the period of the indictment, and Maureen grew protective and jealous of their connection, Burck said.

“Jonnie Williams was larger than life to Maureen McDonnell,” Burck said. “But unlike the other man in her life, Jonnie Williams paid attention to Maureen McDonnell.”

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Many political scandals revolve around sex, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber told jurors during opening arguments that this one was all business.

Aber described how Maureen McDonnell asked Williams to buy her clothes for a 2011 wedding, and he complied, treating the first lady to a $20,000 shopping spree in New York. In exchange, Aber said, Maureen McDonnell made sure that Williams would be seated next to her husband at a dinner.

“Designer clothing for another man’s wife,” Aber said, saying that she knew that looked like a potential romance. She also noted that the first lady and Williams “talked on the phone a lot.”

But, Aber said, “This was always just a business relationship. Nothing more.”

Aber went on to describe other lavish gifts that Williams provided to the McDonnell family – and the steps she said the governor and first lady subsequently took to promote his business.

The prosecutor described Williams as a “vitamin salesman” seeking to validate his product with scientific studies.

In October 2010, Williams flew the governor on his private jet from California to Richmond, and used those hours of facetime to impress upon the governor how much he needed scientific research into his tobacco-based supplement, Aber said.

After the flight, McDonnell instructed his health secretary, William Hazel, to meet with Williams. But Hazel was skeptical of Williams’s claims, and the meeting did not go well, Aber said.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Defense attorneys on Tuesday withdrew their request to subpoena materials related to one witness in the case — Jonnie Williams’s personal secretary Jerri Fulkerson. Defense attorney James Burnham said McDonnell’s defense team had “negotiated something” with Fulkerson’s attorney and would no longer need the materials, which related to her alleged misdeeds in her work as a notary.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber introduced the prosecutors’ case to jurors first by talking about Robert F. McDonnell’s more than 30 years as a public servant, referencing his time in the Army and his work as the attorney general and governor for the state of Virginia.

She said McDonnell owed taxpayers — who funded a chef, butler and security detail for him and his family — a “duty not to sell the power and the influence of his office to the highest bidder.”

But that is exactly what McDonnell did, Aber said, as he accepted more than $150,000 in cash, loans, vacations, golf and luxury goods from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a man she termed a “vitamin salesman,” in exchange for his helping Williams peddle his wares.

Aber said McDonnell specifically invited invited university researchers to study Williams’s products at the governor’s mansion, he personally requested a high-ranking health official meet with Williams on “less than 12 hours notice,” and he allowed Williams to invite doctors to a mansion event. In that instance, Aber said, the invitations were ones that “Mr. McDonnell’s own cabinet secretary refused to pay for.”

Aber said most everyone was kept in the dark, and it would take some time — and multiple witnesses — to unravel the storyline of corruption.

“Mr. McDonnell’s subordinates, those researchers, the citizens of Virginia, no one knew what was really going on,” Aber said.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Opening arguments are the prosecutors’ and defense attorneys’ first shot at shaping the way jurors view the evidence. So whose views are they shaping?

Four jurors are women, eight are men. Nine appear to be white, three appear to be black.

One is a retired corrections sergeant. Another worked seven years as a financial services adviser. One is actually the neighbor of a former Maureen McDonnell staffer, a possible witness in the case.

THE DECISION: McDonnell’s character will be key

Each juror filled out a questionnaire before Monday’s lengthy jury selection, but the court has declined to make that public. So what is known publicly is only what each person said in response to the judge’s questions about everything from their experience with banking and accounting to their and their family members’ work in Virginia state government.

That is why it is known, for example, that one juror’s father was a military police officer during Vietnam, and his aunt retired from the Virginia Department of Transportation. That is also why it is known another juror’s wife works in security, and another juror’s wife is a project manager at the Federal Reserve Bank.

The attorneys delivering opening arguments, of course, might know more. They have seen each jurors’ responses to the questionnaires, and experts say they likely have consulted with experts to analyze those and perhaps even used mock juries to determine which arguments carry the most weight.

Read more about jury selection.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

As the parties deliver their opening arguments to the jurors, there remain some looming battles over what evidence the 12 men and women on the panel will actually get to hear.

On Monday, defense attorneys asked the judge to bar prosecutors from calling to the witness stand two former state employees whose service largely predated McDonnell’s time in the governor’s office.

TIMELINE: The McDonnell corruption probe

In a filing, the defense attorneys wrote that Robert Skunda, who served as secretary of commerce in the administration of Governor George Allen (R) in the 1990s, and Amy Bridge, who served as director of the governor’s mansion under Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D), should not be allowed to testify about their experiences because they lacked any personal knowledge of the events of the case.

Defense attorneys wrote that prosecutors seem to want to call the pair to talk about how they might have handled promoting a Virginia business and using — or not using — the mansion to do so, as McDonnell is accused of doing with ex-dietary supplement executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. But that type of testimony would be considered “expert” testimony, defense attorneys wrote, and they said prosecutors had not provided them appropriate notice to call experts.

Also Monday, the personal assistant for prosecutors’ key witness moved to quash an attempt by the McDonnells to subpoena materials related to her alleged misdeeds as a notary. The assistant’s attorneys wrote that the McDonnells’ attorneys already had most of the materials they sought, and pursuing others should not be allowed because that would constitute a “fishing expedition.”

In this courtroom sketch at the federal corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, center, and his wife, former first lady Maureen McDonnell, second from right, Judge James R. Spencer, left, presides during jury selection Monday in Richmond.

In this courtroom sketch at the federal corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, center, and his wife, former first lady Maureen McDonnell, second from right, Judge James R. Spencer, left, presides during jury selection Monday in Richmond.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Presiding over the McDonnell case is U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer. He was appointed to the federal bench in 1986 by Ronald Reagan, becoming the first African American federal judge in Virginia. At the time he was 37, which made him one of the youngest federal judges in the country.

Prior to his appointment, he served in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps and then as a federal prosecutor in D.C. and in the Eastern District of Virginia. He holds a law degree from Harvard and a master’s of divinity from Howard University. Oh, and he has a black belt in karate.

Spencer’s wife, Margaret, is also a circuit court judge in Richmond. Ironically, she also has had a hand in matters related to the McDonnell case. She was assigned to oversee the case of Todd Schneider, the McDonnell’s former chef, who was accused of stealing food from the mansion.

While under investigation, it was Schneider who first told authorities of what seemed to him to be an oddly close relationship between the first couple and businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. He turned over documents showing that Williams had paid the $15,000 catering fee for the wedding of the governor’s daughter.

In Margaret Spencer’s courtroom, Schneider pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors related to the charges.

James Spencer is known as a particularly no-nonsense courtroom leader. He prizes efficiency and looks down on showboating by attorneys. Last year, he announced he was taking on “senior judge” status, which would allow for a lessened work load. But the McDonnell case alone has occupied months of his time and is expected to now last five weeks.

“Pray for us,” he told potential jurors not selected to serve, as he dismissed them Monday. “We need it.”

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