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Updates: Day 16 of the McDonnell corruption trial

August 18, 2014
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, left, arrives with his attorneys, John L. Brownlee, center, and Henry W. "Hank" Asbill, at the federal courthouse in Richmond on Thursday. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, P. Kevin Morley)

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, left, arrives with his attorneys, John L. Brownlee, center, and Henry W. “Hank” Asbill, at the federal courthouse in Richmond on Thursday. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, P. Kevin Morley)

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 Monday resumed hearing testimony from witnesses during a trial in federal court in Richmond.

 Interactive: McDonnell gifts list | Twitter: Latest | Previous days: The trial | Photos Indictment

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

On cross examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry asked Secretary of Commerce James Cheng about his comment that he and the governor didn’t discuss personal finances.

So, when Cheng attended that event for Sabra hummus, he didn’t know whether or not Sabra officials had paid $15,000 for catering at the wedding of the governor’s daughter? He said he would not know. What about whether Maureen McDonnell received a $50,000 loan from Sabra officials? He said he didn’t know.

Then Dry pressed: Wouldn’t Cheng have wanted to know if the governor directed him to meet with someone who had given the governor $120,000 in personal loans? Isn’t that something he’d have considered relevant to know?

“I don’t know that I would want to know about that,” Cheng responded, explaining that he treated everyone the same who came for a meeting, regardless of their relationship with the governor.

Then Dry asked, isn’t it the case that Cheng himself has given money to the governor? Yes, the former secretary agreed. Dry asked whether he donated $2,450 to Bob McDonnell’s campaign for governor, and Cheng agreed that was correct.

And, Dry asked, isn’t it the case that Cheng donated $15,000 to McDonnell’s legal defense fund?

The former secretary agreed that was true as well.

With that, Dry completed his cross examination of Cheng. Judge James R. Spencer called an early end for the day. Court will resume in the federal trial of Bob and Maureen McDonnell at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday morning.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Anatabloc was not the only product to be feted at the governor’s mansion under Robert F. McDonnell. Even the humble chickpea inspired a breakfast at the 200-year-old home, complete with governor and state university researchers.

Bob McDonnell’s commerce and trade secretary, Jim Cheng, recalled on the stand just now that the governor once hosted the presidents of Israeli-based Strauss Foods and PepsiCo for breakfast. The two companies had, under a joint venture, produce Sabra hummus. McDonnell hosted them for a mansion breakfast when they opened a plant in Virginia to produce the chickpea dip.

The hummus was made with imported chickpeas. Researchers from several state universities were also asked to attend the event to discuss the possibility of agricultural research into growing the legume in Virginia.

The event and the presence of researchers at it could be important, as the defense seeks to suggest that there was nothing out of the ordinary when the McDonnells hosted a 2011 lunch to mark the arrival of Anatabloc in stores. University researchers attended that event as well. Star Scientific chief Jonnie Williams was hoping to interest them in studying anatabine, the active ingredient of his untested nutritional supplement

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Continuing the defense parade of former staffers for Robert F. McDonnell who never saw their boss take any action for Jonnie R. Williams Sr. or Star Scientific is James Cheng, Virginia’s former secretary of commerce and trade.

Testifying Monday afternoon, Cheng said companies frequently sought — and received — the support of the governor’s office, and that was completely appropriate. After all, he said, part of the governor’s job was creating jobs and promoting Virginia businesses.

But Cheng said he never saw the governor take any action on behalf of Williams or Star Scientific. He did not, for example, request a bill be passed to appropriate money to the company, Cheng said. Nor did he use cash from his economic contingency fund — which did not require him to get legislative approval, Cheng said.

The testimony is important because it might help convince jurors that the governor did not actually do or promise to do anything for Williams or Star Scientific — and he could have. Cheng testified that the governor gave funds to other companies by way of legislation or his economic contingency fund to bring them to Virginia or keep them in the state.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Finance Secretary Richard D. “Ric” Brown said that then-governor Bob McDonnell never asked him to include any money in the state budget to benefit Star Scientific or its chief executive, Jonnie Williams.

Brown helped prepare state budget plans under McDonnell (R) as his finance chief, a position he first held under former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) and continues to hold under Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

Brown explained that 60 percent of spending in the two-year state budget is earmarked, either by state law or because it is federal money that comes with strings attached. But he said the governor had great control over how the remainder, which amounts to about $37 billion in general fund dollars, gets spent – at least in the budget he proposes to the General Assembly.

That $37 million is allocated “almost all at the governor’s discretion” in the budget plan, Brown said.

The governor also has a Governor’s Opportunity Fund that awards grants to promote job growth, Brown said.

The finance secretary was asked whether he had ever been asked to allocate money in the budget for Star or Williams.

“No,” Brown said.

Brown also answered no when asked whether the governor had ever asked him to do anything unethical.

A lawyer for Maureen McDonnell asked Brown if the first lady has any control over the state budget.

“No,” Brown said, “other than her influence over her husband.”

Prosecutors declined to cross examine Brown, and the defense called its next witness: Bob McDonnell’s commerce and trade secretary, Jim Cheng.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Under a series of questions from Bob McDonnell’s defense attorney John Brownlee, former secretary of education Laura Fornash has testified that it was not uncommon for her to take meetings with representatives of private companies at the request of the governor or his chief of staff.

The defense is trying to show that the access provided to former Star Scientific executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. was not unusual. She testified that she met, for instance, with private companies that had new technologies they wanted to introduce to assist in campus security. It was not uncommon, she said, that requests for such meetings would arrive from the governor late at night or early in the morning. When she took such meetings, she said she felt empowered to turn companies down and did it from time to time.

“When the governor wanted you to do something, was he clear?”

“Yes, very clear,” she said.

That was designed to impress on jurors that if McDonnell had wanted his staff to assist Williams, he would have done more than simply ask them to take a meeting.

Fornash said that in her role, she acted as a liaison with state universities. At no time, she said, did McDonnell ever ask her to do anything with public universities regarding Star Scientific, Jonnie Williams, the product Anatabloc or the compound anatabine.

Under a handful of questions from Maureen McDonnell’s attorney, Fornash said that similarly, the first lady never asked her to assist Williams or Star Scientific in anyway.

Prosecutors had no questions for Fornash and she has stepped down from the witness stand.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Now on the stand is Laura Fornash, the education secretary during part of the McDonnell administration.

Fornash, who would have worked with the state universities, seems likely to continue building the defense narrative that Robert F. McDonnell never pressured University of Virginia or Virginia Commonwealth Universities to study Anatabloc, nor could he.

Fornash testified that the governor’s office did not “control” the state institutions, but rather, gave them “a strong hand in policy guidance.” She said the institutions constantly sought more autonomy.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

During his testimony, Neal Noyes testified that when first questioned by the FBI, he told authorities that the tobacco commission had no records related to Star Scientific. He said later that the commission discovered some e-mails they had overlooked. According to an e-mail displayed in court, the commission turned those e-mails over to the FBI on Oct. 4, 2013.

So what was it that jogged the commission’s memories about those e-mails? Other e-mails reviewed in recent months showed it was a public information request from The Washington Post. Noyes turned those e-mails over to The Post about the same time he did to the FBI. Here’s the story that resulted. (It included other information related to e-mails obtained through a public records request from VCU.)

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry has begun cross-examining Neal Noyes, former executive director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

Dry has directed Noyes’s attention to a handful of e-mails sent to Tobacco Commission staffers in summer 2011 in which administrators at the University of Virginia asked questions regarding inquiries they had received from a company called Star Scientific about possible tobacco commission funding. (In one e-mail, an official wrote that U-Va. had heard that the governor’s wife was “gently advocating” for the company.)

Repeatedly, Dry asked Noyes whether it was common for a potential applicant to ask those kinds of informal questions before filing an application. Was that a part of the commission’s “informal process”? Noyes testified that conversations of that kind were “not atypical.”

This may be an attempt by Dry to get deep into the legal weeds. To get a conviction, prosecutors have to prove that McDonnell agreed to exchange official acts in exchange for an illegal benefit. The law defines an official act as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before a public official in his or her official capacity.”

Dry may be trying to establish that these inquiries from the University of Virginia constituted a part of a process of applying for a tobacco commission grant and hence that the notion of state funding for Star Scientific was, in fact, a proceeding pending before state government at the time Star chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. was giving the McDonnells gifts and money.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell never appeared before the state tobacco commission to request grants for Jonnie R. Williams Sr. or his company, Star Scientific, the commission’s former executive director testified Monday. Nor did Williams or the company ever receive any grants; in fact, neither ever applied, the commission’s former director said.

Neal Noyes, the former executive director of the commission, testified that the commission could only award such grants with a vote, but that never came to pass with Williams or Star Scientific. That testimony is important because prosecutors pursuing a public corruption case against McDonnell and his wife have posited influence with the tobacco commission as one way the governor might have helped — or promised to help — Williams.

To be sure, it should come as no surprise to jurors that Williams got nothing from the tobacco commission; defense attorneys have tried to press the point with other witnesses throughout the trial. But hearing it from Noyes, who actually had the power to approve grants, provides a more vivid demonstration of just how far away Williams and his company were from any tobacco commission funding, which they seem to have wanted.

Noyes testified that the governor only once appeared before the commission in some type of advocacy role, and it was “for an entirely different project.” That, though, is important, too. Prosecutors must only prove that the governor promised to help Williams with an “official act” — even if he did not actually follow through on that act. And if the governor could wield influence over the tobacco commission — as an unrelated appearance before them could suggest — that helps the government.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Prosecutors are trying to portray Janet Vestal Kelly as something of a Bob McDonnell groupie who dropped out of graduate school to work for the Republican.

Kelly, who was secretary of the commonwealth during his administration, agreed with the prosecution’s assessment that the former governor had been “the centerpiece of your career.”

But prosecutor Jessica Aber pointed out that as one of Bob McDonnell’s closest and longest-serving aides, even she was in the dark about $120,000 in loans, a $6,500 Rolex and expensive golf outings bankrolled by Star executive Jonnie Williams. Even so, she acknowledged that she’d referred to Williams as “BFD,” a profane acronym that she cleaned up in court to define as “big freaking deal.”

Kelly did have an early heads-up about one bit of Williams’s largesse. She said she knew that he had paid the $15,000 catering tab at the June 2011 wedding of one McDonnell daughter “in quasi real time.”

Kelly said that the first lady’s former chief of staff, Mary-Shea Sutherland, had told her sometime between June and October of that year that Williams had paid the tab. Sutherland told Kelly that she was not sure whether the governor was aware of the payment, and Sutherland also told Kelly at that time that she owned stock in Star, Kelly testified.

Kelly said she took the matter to the governor’s chief of staff, Martin Kent. Sutherland previously testified that she also had informed Kent of the payment. But Kent, who like Sutherland was a prosecution witness, had testified that Sutherland had not made him aware of it. He did not volunteer if anyone else had informed him.

Aber asked Kelly about testimony she had given on direct examination, when she had said that the staff had some concerns about Williams’s access but decided that there was nothing to worry about because the executive never asked for anything.

Aber noted that Williams had been asking to have state universities to study anatabine, the active ingredient in his dietary supplement Anatabloc. The prosecutor asked Kelly whether she would have been concerned about Williams if she’d known he had, indeed, wanted something.

“I think that would have raised a red flag,” Kelly said.

Aber also asked about Kelly’s testimony from earlier in the day, when she said she had observed Maureen McDonnell and Williams acting in a flirtatious manner on a January 2012 flight on Williams’s jet.

Aber asked Kelly whether she recalled her reaction last year when investigators asked her if she had ever heard any rumors that the first lady and Williams were having an affair.

“I said I wasn’t aware of any rumors,” Kelly said.

“Did you, in fact, laugh?” Aber asked.

Kelly said she did not recall if she had. But she said she did saying this to investigators: “In some ways, I wish I had [heard rumors of an affair] because that would explain everything.”

Defense attorneys have tried to explain the scandal on a “crush” that they claim Maureen McDonnell had on Williams, saying the lonely first lady craved attention from Williams as much as any material gain.

Under cross-examination from Aber, Kelly acknowledged that before Monday, she had never told investigators that the first lady and Williams had interacted in a “flirty” way.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly has now stepped down from the witness stand, after just a brief redirect examination from Bob McDonnell’s lawyer Henry Asbill.

Kelly confirmed under questioning that she didn’t know about other aspects of McDonnell’s financial life beyond his arrangement with Jonnie Williams. She didn’t know about loans on his properties in Virginia Beach or about his credit card balances.

“Did you discuss personal financial issues with him?”

“No,” she responded.

The defense is trying to indicate that it would not be surprising that Kelly, an employee, would not know about Williams’s loans.

Now to the stand for the defense: Neil Noyes, who served until August 2013 as executive director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly said she and other aides to the governor discussed businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and his relationship with the first lady from time to time.

Each of those conversations ended the same way, she said: “We said, ‘He never asks for anything, so we’re not concerned,’ ” she testified.

The defense has concluded its questions for Kelly and the prosecution has picked up with a cross examination from Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

William Burck, an attorney for Maureen McDonnell, has now taken over the questioning of former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly.

He began by showing her the joint letter submitted by the mansion staff in 2012 and highlighting for her a line from the staff: “We have heard you say this many times that this wasn’t your vision for your life.”

Burck asked Kelly whether she ever heard the first lady say anything similar.

“She would say, ‘I didn’t sign up for this. This isn’t what I wanted,’ ” Kelly testified.

She went on to testify that Maureen McDonnell wasn’t a public speaker and found the public aspect of her job stressful. Kelly told the first lady that she believed she was handling her discomfort in an unhealthy manner, allowing her stress to turn into anger. She noted that the first lady also lost both her parents in the first year of the administration and that her youngest children, twin sons, went off to college in 2010 as well.

“It was a lot for her,” she said.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Maureen McDonnell’s defense attorney asked a federal judge Monday afternoon to order separate trials for the first lady and her husband, arguing that the evidence in the case just elicited by the governor’s attorneys was unhelpful to his wife on the charge that she obstructed justice. U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer immediately denied the request.

Defense Attorney William Burck made the request just as the parties returned from lunch Monday. Before that, former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly had testified about how Maureen McDonnell was difficult to work with and kept some things secret.

Burck argued that that testimony would be particularly damaging to his client as she battles a charge that she tried to obstruct the investigation into her and her husband’s relationship with Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. That charge is based on a note she sent to Williams which insinuated — falsely, according to prosecutors — that she and the businessman agreed she would eventually return the expensive apparel Williams bought for her on a 2011 shopping trip in New York City.

Burck acknowledged that the testimony about the first lady’s secrecy and outlandish behavior might help her defeat the charges that she conspired with her husband to solicit Williams’s largess.

Spencer offered no reasoning as he turned down the request, saying only, “That motion will be denied.” Defense attorneys for both sides had made the same motion before the trial, on different grounds. It, too, was denied. ​

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

At a June 2011 retreat to a resort in western Virginia, Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. asked then-Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly for a seat next to the state’s health secretary, Kelly testified Monday. Kelly said she asked the health secretary whether that would be all right, and he responded, “probably with profanity, no.”

Testifying for the defense, Kelly seems to be laying the groundwork for the argument that Williams received no special treatment for his relationship with the governor and his wife. The 2011 episode seems to provide some evidence of that.

The state’s health secretary, Bill Hazel, had testified previously of his skepticism toward Williams and his desire not to be seated next to the businessman at the event.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Bob McDonnell’s defense attorney Henry Asbill has concluded his questioning of former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly by asking her to talk a little about her former boss’s character.

“He’s one of the most honest people I know,” she said. “If he says he’s going to do something, he does it. If I talk to him about something in confidence, he’s able to do that.  … I never question what he tells me.”

She agreed, too, that she believes McDonnell is a law-abiding man and that he generally isn’t suspicious of the motives of others.

Asbill then asked her how many people she knows who also know Bob McDonnell. She responded that the number is probably in the thousands — both people who know him from politics and people who have encountered him in their personal lives.

Asked how those people, in general, feel about McDonnell, she responded this way: “The common thread in all of those communities is that if they had to elect a Boy Scout of the year, Mr. Honest, it would be him.”

Kelly said she would work with McDonnell again “in a heartbeat.” But she said she might have trouble working for him under the conditions that were present during his gubernatorial administration. “He has some work to do on his marriage,” she said, an answer that was drowned out by a prosecution objection.

With that, Asbill relinquished the witness. Court is now on lunch break until 2:05 p.m., when an attorney for Maureen McDonnell will begin questioning Kelly.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly ​testified Monday that Maureen McDonnell sometimes engaged in what a defense attorney called “secretive behavior” — and on one trip was said to have “hid stuff on the plane.”

“It was sort-of well-known she would hide things,” Kelly said.

Kelly was unable to add many more details, because a prosecutor objected, and Kelly later acknowledged she had no personal knowledge of the trip on which Maureen McDonnell hid items. The testimony is important, though, because it might suggest that the first lady actively kept her husband in the dark about things Jonnie R. Williams Sr. gave to her, or things she did for him in return.

Kelly also testified that Maureen McDonnell was unhappy when her husband, after being elected governor, told her not to sell the so-called “nutraceuticals” she was interested in and to discontinue her “vitamin business.”

“I don’t think she liked either one,” Kelly said.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

In January 2012, the entire staff at the governor’s mansion drafted a letter, which they intended to deliver to the first lady of Virginia as they “all threatened to quit en masse,” a former governor’s staffer testified Monday.

The letter — signed by each staffer, alphabetically, by first name — deplored the “general tension that permeates this building at all times” and said staffers felt like their mere presence was an “inconvenience.”

Former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly ​said she intercepted the staffers — who were on their way to the governor’s chief of staff’s office — and with a management consultant, discouraged them from giving the letter to Maureen McDonnell. She said she felt that the first lady “just didn’t have the capacity to receive the letter” and take its message to heart that her management style was causing problems.

“I think she was pathologically incapable of taking any kind of responsibility,” Kelly said.

The testimony is personally unflattering to the former first lady, more than anything, but also might help bolster defense attorneys’ assertion that she and the governor were mired in a broken marriage, and they were unable to conspire together as prosecutors have alleged. As they questioned Kelly on Monday, defense attorneys seemed to be painting contrasting pictures of Robert F. McDonnell and his wife. After Kelly testified about her admiration and respect for the governor, she testified that she felt that the mansion staffers’ concerns about Maureen McDonnell were fair, and she herself at one point said she would not work for the governor if she had to also work for his wife.

She said she changed her tune only after she came to work one day and saw her boss tired from what appeared to her to be a long night of berating at the hands of his wife.

“It dawned on me that she was yelling at him at night for things that had happened that day,” she said.

She said she soon began to get more involved in dealing with staffers’ complaints about the first lady.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly says she spent one three-hour flight alone with Star Scientific executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. This was the return flight from a campaign trip to South Carolina in 2012. Kelly flew down with the first lady and Williams on his plane. On the way back, it was just the two of them.

“We talked about Anatabloc — a lot,” she said. “He was very, very salesmanlike in trying to get me to buy Star Scientific stock.”

She said that’s the main thing she remembers now about that flight — his sales pitch for Star stock. She said she considered buying the stock but ultimately declined.

“I went home and prayed about it. I just didn’t have a good feeling,” she said.

Kelly testified that on the flight down to South Carolina, she observed first lady Maureen McDonnell and Williams interacting. “It was kind of flirty,” she said.” It was very, very friendly.”

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Earlier in the trial, jurors have heard testimony regarding a P.O. box established by former governor Robert F. McDonnell. Bob and Maureen McDonnell’s stock broker testified that after sending documents related to Star Scientific stock for about a year to her home in suburban Richmond, the first lady requested that he begin sending the records to a P.O. box instead. An e-mail showed that the box was monitored by former governor’s assistant Pam Watts, suggesting that anything sent to it would likely come to the governor’s attention.

The idea of a mysterious and secret post office box might have seemed suspicious to jurors. But former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly has testified that she helped set up the box. She said that when McDonnell first took office, he had his personal mail sent to the governor’s mansion. But he quickly discovered that the Virginia State Police officers would screen all mail sent to the governor’s mansion. All his bills and any medical documents would be opened by his protection detail.

“That would be uncomfortable. It made him uncomfortable,” she said.

She said she worked with McDonnell’s assistant for some time to find a way to screen his personal mail from other mail and keep it confidential. Finally, sometime early in the term, she helped set up the post office box for personal mail.

Defense attorney Henry Asbill asked: Why didn’t he just continue to have his personal mail sent to his home in the Richmond suburbs?

“It’s 30 minutes away and [he] just wasn’t there that often,” she said.

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