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Updates: Day 18 of the McDonnell corruption trial

August 20, 2014
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, right, arrives at federal court with his attorney, Henry Asbill, left, on Wednesday in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, right, arrives at federal court with his attorney, Henry Asbill, left, on Wednesday in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, are battling a 14-count public corruption indictment that alleges that they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to a Richmond area businessman and that, in exchange, the businessman lavished them with gifts and money.

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

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Testimony for the day wrapped up with Robert F. McDonnell recounting things he had done for businesses other than Star Scientific while he was governor.

He said he would make visits to all sorts of Virginia enterprises – battery factories to ice cream shops – to promote economic growth at a time of deep recession. Sometimes he would award them an economic development grant or take part in a ground-breaking.

Did he ever visit Star, asked his attorney, Henry Asbill?

McDonnell said he had not.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, did host an executive mansion luncheon in 2011 to mark the appearance of Star’s dietary supplement, Anatabloc, in stores. Asbill asked McDonnell whether he had hosted other companies at the mansion. McDonnell recalled events done for Sabra hummus and Volkswagen.

With that, Asbill said he was ready to launch into a new topic: the McDonnells’ marriage. Judge Spencer suggested that he save that for tomorrow, and court was dismissed for the day.

Along with his legal team, McDonnell left the courthouse with two longtime friends who had served as character witnesses for the former governor earlier in the day. One of them is a Catholic priest who reiterated for the reporters who swarmed them that he thought Bob McDonnell was a man of strong moral character.

One reporter asked McDonnell, “How did you get yourself into this mess?”

“Well,” McDonnell replied, “We’ve got a couple more days to talk about that.”

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

After nearly two hours on the stand, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell has taken up the issue of Jonnie R. Williams and Star Scientific for the first time.

His attorney Henry Asbill noted to the former governor that prosecutors believe that what he did for the dietary supplement company was in some way different or unusual, and asked McDonnell how he would respond.

“When you say, what I did for Star — can you be more specific?”

Then he moved to the heart of his defense: “I would say my administration did very little other than provide the routine access to government that any donor or non-donor, any gift-giver or non gift-giver, would be able to get.”

He noted that there were hundreds of events held at the governor’s mansion during his four years as governor and he tried hard to get more people to attend and view the historic building. More than 1,000 times a year, he would hand business cards off to staff and ask them to take meetings with various people.

“I would say things like meetings and mansion events … I certainly viewed those as the mere basic routine access to government and not unusual.”

What’s more, he said that when Williams first explained his company and its aim to use a chemical found in tobacco in a dietary supplement, he believed it could be good for a hard-hit region of the state. That conversation came on Williams’s plane in October 2010.

“If it really held any promise … it could create jobs in that region of the state, that would be a positive thing,” he said. “Anything we could do to help that part of the state, I thought would be a really good thing.”

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Bob McDonnell is reminiscing about that unusually balmy January day in 2010 when he became the 71st governor of Virginia.

“Exhilarating,” was how he described the day. “To have the same job as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry – just unbelievable.”

He recalled the parade with the Virginia Military Institute band, and the presence of his dad, who would die later that year.

He talked about how busy he was getting ready for the General Assembly session, already three days underway before he was sworn in.

And he said he quickly learned that as he oversaw the vast state government, he could no longer be the micromanager that he had been in previous jobs.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Robert F. McDonnell testified Wednesday that as he worked to create jobs and spur economic development in Virginia, he often had to personally promote state businesses.

The testimony under the questioning of defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill seems designed to show that McDonnell was doing what he would have done for any Virginia business owner in helping Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and his company, Star Scientific. McDonnell talked specifically of an appearance at a brewery to draw attention to a bill that would make expansion easier for craft brewers in the state.

Jurors saw a video clip of that appearance in another McDonnell defense attorney’s opening argument.

“It just calls more attention to the issue — that all things considered, I’d rather have people buying Virginia wine, or Virginia beer, or Virginia peanuts,” McDonnell said.

And McDonnell seemed to downplay his promotion of Williams and Star Scientific, notably in relation to an event at the governor’s mansion marking the launch of the supplement Anatabloc. McDonnell testified that mansion events were typically “without press” and by “invitation only.” He said his appearance at events at the site of a company might have a greater impact.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia’s former governor, is stressing to the jury that he was a stickler for ethics.

Under direct examination by one of his lawyers, Henry Asbill, McDonnell said that he intentionally did not sign or review reports on his political action committee so he would not be influenced by donations.

He added, however, that he was aware of the largest donations because he personally wrote thank-you notes for those.

As a state delegate, McDonnell said, he supported a change in state ethics law so that political donations could not be solicited or accepted while the General Assembly was in session. He said that donations during the session from people with interest in pending legislation created an “appearance of impropriety.”

He noted that the policy did not apply to personal gifts given to legislators, who often are treated to dinner by lobbyists during the session.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Robert F. McDonnell just testified that although he viewed it as part of  his job as governor of Virginia to give people a fair hearing about their needs and desires, he denied plenty of requests from campaign donors and gift-givers.

McDonnell said William Sessoms, whom jurors earlier heard testify about the former governor’s bank loans, wanted to be named to the board of visitors of Old Dominion University. Sessoms is president of Townebank and mayor of Virginia Beach. McDonnell said he turned down that request because he did not think it was appropriate to put a mayor on a college board.

Likewise, Bruce Thompson, who came up earlier in testimony as a Virginia Beach developer who tried to find supporters of the governor to assist with his loan issues, wanted McDonnell to support retaining Virginia’s law requiring that school start after Labor Day. Thompson owns hotels, and McDonnell said he figured the law was good for that business. Instead, McDonnell championed legislation to allow school districts to decide to start classes before the holiday.

Bill Goodwin is another name whom jurors have heard. Earlier in the trial, jurors learned that he gave McDonnell a $23,000 vacation in 2012 which McDonnell elected not to disclose, declaring that Goodwin was a “personal friend.”

“The only thing he asked me was to put his son-in-law on the board at the University of Virginia,” McDonnell said. He said the man had been on the board and Goodwin wanted him reappointed. McDonnell declined, believing the son-in-law would not support his own higher education agenda.

McDonnell’s point is to suggest that he treated businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. no differently. Williams was allowed to meet with staff to the governor. But he was never actually given any of the things he sought, namely tobacco commission funding for research at public universities of his company’s dietary supplement.

McDonnell said constituents “should be able to make their pitch on their idea.”

“That’s what government exists to do, serve constituents,” he said.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Asked about his raising and accepting political donations, Robert F. McDonnell seems to be previewing the key contention of his defense.

Raising money, McDonnell said, is “one of the key things that has to be done with a statewide office.” And that requires, he said, meeting with people who want something.

“My rule of thumb is every contributor wants something,” he said.

But McDonnell said when he has met with potential donors throughout his political career, he has been guided by the principle: “If you can’t take somebody’s money and be willing to vote against their interest the next day, you don’t belong in the business.”

If jurors believe McDonnell genuinely feels that way — and applied the mantra to his dealings with Jonnie R. Williams Sr. — they might be inclined to return a verdict that is favorable to him. Prosecutors must prove that McDonnell accepted Williams’s largess as part of a corrupt exchange for his using the governor’s office to promote the businessman promote his company and its product.

McDonnell told jurors that he could draw a distinction between contributions and actions.

“You’ve got to be able to separate the receipt of a contribution from what you believe is the right thing to do on a particular policy issue,” McDonnell said. “You’ve got to know there those lines are.”

To be sure, prosecutors are not alleging that the things Williams gave to McDonnell and his family — loans for his real estate company, vacations and luxury goods — are campaign or political contributions. And McDonnell will eventually have to answer questions about those.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Bob McDonnell on the stand is pretty much Bob McDonnell at a Capitol Square news conference or Bob McDonnell on “Meet the Press.”

The unruffled, affable persona that the former governor wore in politics is back on display in his criminal trial. The one-time Republican rising star has been answering questions from his defense attorney with a cool reserve.

He smiles at times and looks the jury’s way. He seems not the least bit flustered, although early in his testimony his voice quivered a few times.

While describing his 2005 race for attorney general, the governor paused to spell the name of his GOP primary opponent, Steve Baril. “B-A-R-I-L,” he said for the court reporter’s benefit.

He smiled and looked at the jury when asked just what the attorney general does.

“It’s a remarkable job,” McDonnell said. “You’re the state’s chief legal officer. You run the state’s law firm.”

To be sure, McDonnell is not in the loose, late night talk show mode that a few of his senior staffers have adopted on the stand. Former secretary of the commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly was warned not to share too much after she brought up the subject of her own divorce and a bout with mono.

McDonnell seems relaxed, but reserved. Going for minor chuckles, as when he told the jury he had “some bad habits, as you’ve heard.” He was referring there to his tendency to be a micro-manager.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Jurors are now getting a little taste of Robert F. McDonnell’s campaign for governor, complete with some behind-the-scenes information about when and why he decided to run.

Robert F. McDonnell testified Wednesday that he came to that decision in the middle or end of 2006. He said he had just gotten settled in at the attorney general’s office — having moved to Richmond on his own so his kids could finish school in Virginia Beach — but knew he had to act quickly.

“You only really get one chance at doing this,” he said.

McDonnell said he tapped a number of political advisers to help. Among them were Phil Cox, Janet Vestal Kelly, Tucker Martin and Jasen Eige, all of whom have been witnesses at the trial. And by 2009, McDonnell said he had a staff of 30 or 35 working to get him elected to the highest office in the state.

The hours were long and the travel was extensive, McDonnell said.

“There’s always one more event you can do,” he said. “There’s always one more voter you can talk to.”

“The time spent on the campaign, did that take away from your time with your family?” defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill asked.

“Well, sure,” McDonnell responded.

Then McDonnell launched into why he ran.

The testimony might help his defense attorneys argue that he always acted in the best interests of those he governed, not because of a corrupt bargain with Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

McDonnell said his focus was, “What’s going to make Virginia better over the next four years?” Of particular importance: economic development.

“I really saw an immense amount of hurt and pain in people in Virginia,” he said.

But McDonnell said he had other priorities, too. Among them were public safety, transportation, the state pension system and budget deficits. At times, it sounded like he was again on the campaign trail, looking directly at jurors as he talked about Virginia’s problems, and how he wanted to solve them.

“There was a pretty comprehensive list of things, but everything that we focused on really revolved around this idea of economic development and job creation,” he said.

Most jurors looked back, though two seemed to be looking down, bored with the proceedings.

The judge declared a break at 4:15 p.m. The governor should resume testifying at 4:30 p.m.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell has just discussed a topic he may well return to again in his testimony: campaign finance.

He explained to the jury that his campaign set a goal of raising $25 million during his 2009 race for governor and $31 million was spent overall for his effort.

“I spent a tremendous amount of time meeting with donors, meeting with groups, trying to convince them my ideas were right. … It’s a huge part of a campaign.”

His attorney Henry Asbill asked him, what are the limits on the amount a donor can give in Virginia?

“Virginia has no limits,” he said. And he went on to expand:

“There are no limits on gifts either in Virginia. They just have to be disclosed,” he said. “Or loans, or stock. They just have to be disclosed.”

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Bob McDonnell is describing a family history that Norman Rockwell could have painted: A World War II veteran dad. A “Texas farm girl” mom, who happened to lead tours at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

“I got the belt from my dad and kind of the velvet glove from my mom,” the former governor said.

He said he had an average middle-class upbringing in Fairfax as the oldest of five children. He ticked off the occupations of his siblings. There is sister Maureen, of course, who is a businesswoman and testified as his partner in a real estate venture. She also shares the first name of the former governor’s wife. There’s also another sister who’s a schoolteacher, another who is a federal contractor, and a brother who is a military veteran and physician.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell is continuing to spool out for the jury his life story, trying to give them insight into his life before Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

He explained that while he was in law school, around the age of 30, life was sometimes hard financially. He paid tuition using the GI Bill, and he and wife Maureen had a toy franchise they jointly operated. But he also had two children, and Maureen gave birth to a third child while he was in school. “We call that ‘the years without sleep,’ ” he said.

From time to time, family members would send $100 or $200 to help out. “I don’t know that we ever asked for it, but they knew we were really struggling.”

After graduating, he testified that he became a local prosecutor. He said he liked working on behalf of crime victims: “I liked being in court. I liked being on the prosecutor’s side.”

His wife, he said, supported his ambition. “She knew my heart was in public service.”

But, he added, “she was a little surprised, maybe disappointed” by the salary he made as prosecutor, which “was less than what I had made four years earlier when I left business.”

McDonnell said he quickly decided he wanted to be involved with policy-making and ran for the House of Delegates. In keeping with state law, he left the prosecutor’s office with his election and went to work for a private firm in Virginia Beach.

For 14 years, he said, he worked in Richmond on criminal justice issues, welfare reform, transportation issues and other state matters for about two months a year, but came home to Virginia Beach on weekends and the rest of the year.

But, he said, by 2002, he decided to seek state office and to throw his hat in the ring in 2005 for attorney general.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

As he answers questions from his own defense attorney, Robert F. McDonnell is talking quickly, his voice occasionally quivering. Wearing a gray suit and a blue tie — his gray hair slicked to the side as it always is — McDonnell is looking mostly at the defense attorney, but he also glances directly at the jury occasionally.

McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, who has taken meticulous notes throughout the proceedings, seems to be looking up now — at one point, she brushed her hair out of her face. At least twice, in telling stories that mentioned her, McDonnell gestured toward his wife.

Jurors are staring intently at the governor — seemingly unmoved by the steady string of reporters entering and leaving the courtroom to file updates on McDonnell’s testimony.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Robert F. McDonnell’s testimony is beginning with a methodical rundown of his biography — from military service to hospital supply work to public office.

After attending the University of Notre Dame with an ROTC scholarship, McDonnell said he had a six-year commitment to the military — four years on active duty and two in the reserve. He said he spent three years overseas in Germany, and did domestic stints in Texas and Fort Eustis, in Newport News, Va.

All told, he said he spent 21 years in the Army, retiring in 1997 as a lieutenant colonel.

McDonnell said his military service taught him some of the same values that his father had instilled in him, namely “focusing on the mission” and “use of the chain of command.”

“That’s an important tenet in the military,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell told jurors that in the early 1980s, he worked at a hospital supply company in Atlanta, Ga., and later, Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago, Ill. Along the way, his second daughter, Cailin, was born, he said.

Then, in 1985, McDonnell said he and his wife had a “watershed year.” With his GI  bill benefits set to expire in 1989, and wanting to move closer to his family in Northern Virginia, he returned to Virginia, enrolling in what is now Regent University. He said he eventually earned a law degree.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

On the morning after Robert F. McDonnell won the governorship in 2009, as Maureen McDonnell yelled at her husband about what she would wear, his cellphone went off twice.

He noticed the 202 area code and knew that meant someone from Washington was trying to call him. When he finally picked up, the voice on the other end asked, “Can you hold for the president of the United States?”

McDonnell was certainly willing to hold. And soon, he heard another voice, saying: “Hello, Bob. This is Barack.”

And so a minor domestic drama was interrupted by the governor-elect’s stunning realization that he was suddenly in the big time.

“It was now dawning on me I was in a new phase in my life,” McDonnell said. “To have the leader of the free world on the phone for about seven minutes, asking me to work together.”

But McDonnell said his wife did not feel ready to enter that phase with him.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Former governor Robert F. McDonnell is now on the stand, and his attorney Henry Asbill has started his direct examination with some discussion of Election Day 2009.

“Do you remember that day?” he asked his client.

“I do,” he replied. “That was the day I had the privilege of being elected governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

McDonnell went on to describe his day, how he barnstormed the state, starting at his home precinct in the Richmond suburbs, where he was thrilled to see his name on the ballot. Then, he said, he went to Northern Virginia and greeted friends and family at the precinct of the Mount Vernon community where he grew up.

“My mother was a Democratic poll worker there,” he said. “Now I’m the Republican candidate for governor.”

He finished the day visiting the Virginia Beach precinct that had helped send him to the House of Delegates in 1992. That evening, the election was called early and he exchanged a phone call that he described as gracious with state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, his opponent.

On the next day, he testified that he got up at a hotel “still running on adrenaline,” still thrilled from the results before.

But, he said, his wife, Maureen McDonnell, did not seem to share his feelings.

“I could tell she was not as happy as I was,” he said.

“She was yelling at me about something,” he said, suggesting that it might have been about what she was going to wear.

McDonnell testified that his wife was certainly happy — she had worked hard for his election and had supported the campaign.

But, he added: “I could sense some tension about the impending role she was going to face as first lady.”

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell has taken the witness stand.

The moment that all of Richmond has been waiting for came late Wednesday afternoon, on a day otherwise spent on discussion of McDonnell’s finances and his wife’s behavior at the governor’s mansion. Experts say there is perhaps no more important moment in the public corruption trial: What the 71st governor of Virginia says, and whether or not jurors believe him, will determine whether he and his wife go to federal prison.

The former governor and his wife, Maureen, are charged with lending the prestige of the governor’s office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for more than $170,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods. Defense attorneys have long made clear that the former governor’s testimony will be the centerpiece of their case, and no matter what he says, it will be revelatory.

Citing the ongoing criminal investigation, McDonnell (R) has previously resisted a thorough public accounting of what he knew — and when he knew it — about Williams’s gifts to him and his family. Experts say he is likely to quickly acknowledge receiving gifts from Williams but otherwise remain singularly focused on convincing jurors that the gifts were unconnected to anything he did, and that he always acted for the good of the state he governed.

Defense attorneys have also promised that he will talk about his marital woes — which they argue were so severe that they prevented the governor and the first lady from conspiring together.

McDonnell, 60, has been a fixture in Virginia politics since he was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1992. He served as attorney general before his election as governor in 2009 and as the state’s chief executive until his term ended in January.

While in office, he enjoyed high popularity ratings as he oversaw a turnaround in the state economy and championed a bipartisan plan to improve state roads. At the same time, his national profile was on the rise. He served as chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2012 and was given a prime-time speaking slot that year at the Republican National Convention.

But the latter half of his final year in office was consumed with public attention on his relationship with Williams, which began to emerge in a Washington Post article in March. He spent much of his final days in office facing speculation on whether he would be indicted — a development that took place 10 days after he relinquished the governor’s post to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Under intense public pressure, McDonnell formally apologized for his interactions with Williams in July 2013 and announced that he had repaid money to Williams. Later, he said he had also returned all tangible gifts given to his family by the businessman.

“I am deeply sorry for the embarrassment certain members of my family and I brought upon my beloved Virginia and her citizens,” McDonnell said then.

But he quickly added: “I want you to know that I broke no laws and that I am committed to regaining your sacred trust and confidence.”

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

We’re back from lunch, and defense attorneys have begun calling character witnesses to extol the virtues of Robert F. McDonnell.

First up: the Rev. Timothy Scully, a priest, professor and former executive at the University of Notre Dame, and the former governor’s college roommate.

The short version: Scully knows McDonnell really well, and he thinks very highly of him.

The longer version:

Scully testified that he met McDonnell in 1972, when they were randomly assigned to the same floor in Notre Dame’s Flanner Hall. They ended up rooming together for four years. Scully testified that he is the godfather to McDonnell’s daughter Jeanine, presided at her wedding and gave the invocation when McDonnell was inaugurated. He missed the wedding of one of McDonnell’s other daughters, Cailin, only because he was undergoing surgery for prostate cancer.

Scully said that McDonnell is a big Notre Dame football fan, though he confessed he personally is not because he finds the sport too violent. “Don’t let that get out to the Notre Dame community,” he joked. (Sorry, father.) Scully said McDonnell would see him regularly when he came to Indiana for games, and their contact increased after McDonnell was elected attorney general and governor.

Defense attorney Henry Asbill asked Scully whether he found McDonnell to be truthful. “Bob has never erred from the truth, to my knowledge, ever,” Scully responded. Law-abiding? Honest? A man of integrity?

Yes, yes and yes, Scully said.

“Bob’s a role model for all of us,” he said. “He embodies virtue.”

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

A management consultant from Virginia Commonwealth University testified Wednesday he thought the first lady was suffering from “anxiety” and “possibly depression.”

That assessment, said management consultant James Burke, led him to tell the governor in a February 2012 to have his wife possibly move out of the governor’s mansion or seek some type of counseling.

Jurors have heard many adjectives about the first lady over the course of her and her husband’s public corruption trial, and they have heard previously she was unhappy in the Executive Mansion. But Burke’s assessment might be more persuasive than others. Though he is not testifying as an expert witness, jurors know that he holds a Ph.D in clinical psychology.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

In early January 2012, Maureen McDonnell and a VCU consultant exchanged e-mails as the consultant helped the first lady prepare for a speech. The first lady was apparently anxious about the occasion, but motivated to speak by her husband.

“I really wouldn’t be doing this for anyone else but that man of mine :),” Maureen McDonnell wrote.

“Ah, love. It’s a wonderful thing!” the consultant responded.

The e-mails — which consultant James Burke testified about under cross-examination from Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry — might undercut defense attorneys assertion that Maureen McDonnell and the governor were mired in a broken marriage, and thus unable to conspire.

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