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Updates: Day three of the McDonnell corruption trial

July 30, 2014
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell leaves the federal courthouse in Richmond with his lawyer, John L. Brownlee, on the second day of his and wife Maureen's corruption trial on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Alexa Welch Edlund)

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell leaves the federal courthouse in Richmond with his lawyer, John L. Brownlee, on the second day of his and wife Maureen’s corruption trial on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Alexa Welch Edlund)

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 were hearing 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

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Another crazy day in the Bob and Maureen McDonnell case has concluded, with Judge James R. Spencer indicating court will resume with more testimony from Jonnie Williams on Thursday at 9:30 a.m.

Just before court ended, Williams testified that he went to the mansion in May 2011 to drop off two checks for Maureen McDonnell–a $15,000 check for catering at her daughter’s wedding and the $50,000 loan the first lady had requested. He said the date was notable: It was his wedding anniversary.

He said he and wife Celeste planned to have lunch to celebrate at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond and he dropped by the mansion just before. A mansion log shows he signed in at noon. He said his wife intended to remain in the car. “I left her in the car for a little bit,” he said, then continued: “I had trouble getting out.”

He said Maureen McDonnell then came out of the mansion to invite Celeste inside. The group ended up eating salad with the first lady.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

At a governor’s mansion meeting between just the two of them in May 2011, Maureen McDonnell told Jonnie R. Williams, Sr. she and her husband were discussing filing for bankruptcy protection because their credit cards were near “tapped out,” their rental properties in Virginia Beach weren’t doing well and they had to pay high interest rates on a loan from a Virginia Beach physician, Williams testified Wednesday.

Williams testified that he “sat there and listened, and she said to me, ‘I have a background in nutritional supplements, and I can be helpful to you with this project with your company. The governor says it’s okay for me to help you, but I need you to help me with this financial situation.’” She said McDonnell asked specifically for a $50,000 loan and another $15,000 to cover costs at her daughter’s wedding.

The testimony is the most direct indicating a conspiracy between Williams and the McDonnells. But it came with a caveat. Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry, Williams acknowledged Maureen McDonnell did not then promise her husband would help Williams or his company, and she also did not then promise to seek her husband’s help for Williams and his company.

Williams said he agreed to provide the cash, but wanted to talk to the governor himself first. There, too, though, he did not indicate the two of them agreed to a quid pro quo, or that he was only giving the cash to make sure the governor would help him and his company.

“I needed to make sure her husband knew about it,” Williams said of why he wanted to talk to the governor. “He’s the breadwinner in the house, and I’m not writing his wife checks without him knowing about it.”

Williams said he ultimately told the governor, “I just wanted to make sure that you knew about this,” and the governor responded, “Thank you.”

Williams did acknowledge that he “needed [the governor's] help,” because his office would lend “credibility” to Williams’s company and his products.

“I know that he controls the medical schools, so I needed his help with the testing of this,” he said.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Jonnie Williams has just finished explaining to the jury his April 2011 shopping trip with the then-first lady of Virginia. He said he got a call from Maureen McDonnell in April explaining that she and the governor were coming to New York and “we could go shopping now.”

Williams, recalling that he had earlier been told by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell’s counsel Jasen Eige that he could not purchase the first lady’s inauguration gown, said he responded, “Are you sure that’s okay?” he testified. She responded, “It’s okay now.”

So he said he arranged the day. Accompanied by her chief of staff Mary-Shea Sutherland and two police officers, Williams took Maureen McDonnell first to lunch at Bergdorf-Goodman. Then, the crew went to Oscar de la Renta, where he had made an appointment through a friend who was close to de la Renta. After that, they went to Louis Vuitton. Then, he testified, Maureen McDonnell requested to return to Bergdorf-Goodman for more shopping.

Williams said McDonnell initially indicated she wanted to buy two dresses — one for her anniversary with the governor and a second to wear to her daughter’s wedding. But he said she ended up purchasing a series of items. He described some: A full-length white leather coat. A pair of shoes. A raincoat. A dress that after it was tailored did not fit, so Williams arranged for a new dress to be sent to the governor’s mansion.

Williams said he could not recall how many items were purchased it total: “It went on for hours,” he said.

Asked McDonnell’s demeanor during the trip, he said, “She was happy.”

Defense attorneys have earlier charged that Williams also purchased gifts for Sutherland. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry asked Williams whether he bought a dress for Sutherland on that trip.

Williams described that he and Sutherland were sitting and talking on ottomans at Bergdorf-Goodman’s while the first lady tried on dresses–the fourth stop of the day. He said he told Sutherland: “You may as well try on a dress.” He said he ultimately bought her a dress, for $1,600.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Jonnie Williams, said to be a master salesman, testified that he used the facetime he got on a cross-country flight with Gov. Robert McDonnell in October 2010 to promote his fledgling tobacco-based vitamins.

It was a highly personal sales pitch: Williams told the governor that his pills had cured his wife’s pre-cancerous thyroid condition.

Shuttling the governor from California to Richmond on his private jet, Willams used the six hours to lay out his scientific case for his dietary supplement, called Anatabloc.

Williams said that his wife, Celeste, had been diagnosed several years ago with a serious, pre-cancerous thyroid condition. He had already been researching why smokers, while putting themselves at risk for cancer and other ailments, are less likely to get some other health problems, including those involving the thyroid. And he thought he knew the answer: anatabine, a compound found in tobacco and the active ingredient in Anatabloc.

A Johns Hopkins surgeon said Celeste would have to have her thyroid removed.

“Can you give me 60 days so I can do something?” Williams asked the doctor.

Williams used that time to put Celeste on a regimen of “Tic-Tac” style antatabine pills, which would become the forerunner to Anatabloc.

When Celeste showed up for her surgery, Williams said he had the doctors make sure it was necessary.

“I insisted they do a sonogram to check and they came back and … the thoracic surgeon said, ‘Mrs. Williams is no longer a candidate for surgery,’” Williams told the jury.

After sharing that story, Williams said Gov. McDonnell made arrangements for him to meet with Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Hazel. The purpose: Williams wanted help getting state universities to do research into anatabine.

“I needed testing and I wanted to have this done in Virginia,” Williams said. He recalled that he asked the governor: “Would you connect me with the person in Virginia, in your administration, so I can move this forward?”

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

In a small restaurant near the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in New York in 2009, businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. said he had his first sit-down meeting with the McDonnells, “just trying to establish a relationship” with the then-governor elect in what “happens to be a nice environment.”

There, too, was Brad Kroenig, a male model and friend of Williams. Williams testified that when he introduced Kroenig to then- Gov. Robert McDonnell’s wife Maureen, she began talking fashion — particularly what she would wear to her husband’s upcoming inauguration.

“She said, ‘You know, I have a problem with, I’ve got to come up with a dress to wear for the inauguration,” Williams said. ​He said she asked Kroenig if he had any connections in the fashion world who might be able to assist her.

Williams testified that he himself, though, was the one with the fashion connection — a good friend, he claimed, was the goddaughter of Oscar de la Renta. He testified he told Maureen he would help her with the dress, hoping that through his friend, he could line up a loaner from de la Renta.

The governor, Williams said, heard the exchange. But ultimately, the plan fell through. Williams said a lawyer in the governor’s office called him later and nixed the idea, to Maureen’s dismay.

“She wasn’t happy about it. She was disappointed,” Williams testified. “She said she would just take a rain check.”

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the businessman at the center of the case against Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell, has taken the stand to speak publicly for the first time about his relationship with the former governor and his wife.

Looking tan and relaxed, he explained a little bit about how he turned a cigarette company into a dietary supplement firm. The prosecutor asked why he sometimes flew Virginia politicians around in his Learjet.

“I think it’s become common practice if you’re a Virginia company, you want to make sure you have access to those people, and the airplane accomplishes that,” he said.

Williams has told authorities that he showered the first couple with gifts and cash because he believed that it would pay dividends to Star Scientific, the company he led as chief executive until December.

Robert F. McDonnell has insisted that he made no promises to Williams as governor, and McDonnell’s spokesman has said the businessman’s account cannot be trusted.

  • Rachel Weiner
  • ·

A son of Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell testified that Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the former Star Scientific chief executive, sought to help him in addition to giving him free golf clubs and trips.

Williams has given many gifts to the family, according to prosecutors and testimony, which form the heart of the case against the McDonnells.

Robert Ryan “Bobby” McDonnell said Williams provided him with his company’s vitamin supplement, Anatabloc, thinking it would help the University of Virginia soccer player with his chronic bronchitis. Williams also arranged for the young man to see a bronchial specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, but McDonnell said he never took him up on that offer because he was away at school and already saw a specialist there.

Williams also offered to give McDonnell an internship, but then-Gov. McDonnell said “absolutely not,” Bobby McDonnell testified. The governor thought his son should continue his internship with law firm Eckert Seamans instead.

“He didn’t think traveling around with Jonnie was a legitimate internship,” Bobby McDonnell said.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Robert Ryan “Bobby” McDonnell testified that he thought his mother had given his father a fake Rolex for Christmas.

In response to questions from his father’s attorney, “Bobby” McDonnell was asked who he thought had purchased a Rolex his father received for Christmas in 2011. He answered, “My mother.”

In fact, Williams had bought the $6,500 watch in August 2011 and had it engraved “71st Governor of Virginia.”

But Bobby McDonnell was asked: Did the watch come in a Rolex box or have a Rolex certificate? He answered, “No.”

“What did you think about the watch?” attorney Dan Small asked.

“I thought the watch was a fake,” he said. “A knock-off,” because it “ticked” rather than “rolled.”

He continued that he believed his mother had purchased the watch on the black market while traveling on a state trade mission in Asia.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Bobby McDonnell testified that he looked up to businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. as a “mentor.”

Robert and Maureen McDonnell’s son said he grew up with an interest in “nurticeuticals” because of his mothers’ interest and his own health consciousness. He said he and Williams developed a “mentor-mentee relationship” completely apart from his parents’ friendship with the vitamin executive.

“He kind of took me under his wing and taught me about business,” Bobby McDonnell said.

McDonnell said he did not think it all strange that Williams, a wealthy executive, would seek to play golf with him in 2011, when he was still a teenager, at a GOP political convention at the Homestead.

Because he’d grown up around politics, McDonnell said, he was “used to interacting with people, two, three times my age.”

He and Williams went on to play golf several other times, just the two of them.

“Did you consider that separate from your mom or dad’s friendship with Jonnie,” McDonnell defense attorney Dan Small asked.

“I viewed him as a mentor,” Bobby McDonnell said.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Robert Ryan McDonnell, one of Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell’s sons, testified Wednesday that when his father received the infamous Rolex watch from Maureen in December 2011 — a watch prosecutors allege was purchased by businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. — he was “surprised” but not necessarily pleased.

“It was a nice watch,” the McDonnells’ son testified. “Really, his first reaction to my mother was, ‘another watch?’”

Robert Ryan McDonnell testified that his mother had previously bought his father a Seiko watch.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

On the seventh floor of the federal courthouse in Richmond Wednesday was Steve Benjamin, the well-known lawyer who represented the gubernatorial mansion chef who first tipped off authorities to Bob and Maureen McDonnell’s relationship with businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Benjamin’s client, Todd Schneider, catered the $15,000 McDonnell wedding reception that Williams bankrolled. At the first lady’s direction, he would also bake oatmeal raisin cookies for Williams when he visited the mansion.

Schneider alerted investigators to the relationship after he was accused of pilfering food from the mansion kitchen. He eventually pleaded guilty two misdemeanors related to taking food paid for by taxpayers from the mansion.

The chef is not a witness in the McDonnell case. So what brought Benjamin to the courthouse? An unrelated drug case in another seventh-floor courtroom.

“The one place I tried to stay away from,” Benjamin said.

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Not long after the lunch break, with Kinloch Country Club manager Phil Owenby still on the stand, a juror fell ill. The judge called for a break in the proceedings.

The twist added to the courthouse suspense, particularly since the prosecution’s star witness, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., arrived shortly beforehand, ready to testify.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·
Jonnie R. Williams Sr., left, arrives at the federal courthouse on Wednesday in Richmond. (Matt Zapotosky/The Washington Post)

Jonnie R. Williams Sr., left, arrives at the federal courthouse on Wednesday in Richmond with his attorneys. (Matt Zapotosky/The Washington Post)

With two people who appear to be lawyers, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. arrived with little fanfare at the federal courthouse where Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell are facing trial Wednesday afternoon. A few cameramen rushed to capture his entrance at about 2:45 p.m., but he declined to make any comment.

Once the chief executive of a dietary supplement company known as Star Scientific, Williams is said to have lavished the McDonnells with gifts in exchange for their arranging meetings between him and state health officials and promoting his company’s products. A securities investigation of that company — which is no longer led by Williams and now calls itself Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals — spawned the corruption probe of the McDonnells.

Williams’s relationships with the McDonnells — and his credibility on the witness stand — will likely define the trial. The businessman, who court filings suggest has been given immunity for his testimony, is perhaps the only person who can speak directly to the quid pro quo that prosecutors have alleged between him and the McDonnells.  But defense attorneys will surely seek to cast him as a snake oil salesman who is lying to avoid prosecution himself. 

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Maureen McDonnell’s lawyer William Burck has just concluded asking Jonnie Williams’s assistant, Jerri Fulkerson, a series of questions that appeared designed to show the jury that the first lady’s chief of staff, Mary-Shea Sutherland, was in close communication with the executive.

He showed expense reports that indicated Sutherland and Williams had lunch several times in the summer of 2011 to discuss Anatabloc, the product then being introduced to market by Williams’s company Star Scientific. One expense entry showed that Williams wrote on his expense reports that Maureen McDonnell flew on his airplane to an Anatabloc seminar on Gibson Island, Md. In fact, Fulkerson testified, a manifest for the flight showed Sutherland was on the plane.

And he had Fulkerson review an e-mail in which Sutherland proposed ways to produce a documentary about Anatabloc.

In his opening statement Tuesday, Burck claimed that Sutherland did many of the same things that have gotten Maureen McDonnell in hot water. He said she had accepted gifts from Williams and promoted his company. But he noted that as first lady, Maureen McDonnell is a private citizen, whereas Sutherland was a state employee. His goal appears to be to accuse prosecutors of selectively prosecuting the former first lady because of her marriage to the governor.

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·
Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and wife, Maureen, are seen in a Ferrari owned by businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. (Exhibit from the trial)

Then-Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and wife, Maureen, are seen in a Ferrari owned by businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. (Exhibit from the trial)

Prosecutors introduced this photo into evidence on Tuesday — it became available to the public Wednesday. It shows Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell sitting in Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.’s Ferrari.

Cailin McDonnell-Young testified that the photo was taken in the driveway of Williams’s vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake. Acknowledging that as governor her father was generally driven around by members of the  state police’s executive protection unit, she said that he had driven the car to brunch while the family vacationed at Williams’s home.

The McDonnells also drove the car home to Richmond on that 2011 day, but McDonnell-Young told prosecutors she had left the vacation early and could not answer questions about that drive.

This was one of two photos of the Ferrari displayed by prosecutors Tuesday. During her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber also flashed a photo that had been attached to an e-mail sent by Maureen McDonnell. In that photo, Robert F. McDonnell is behind the wheel of the car, driving with the convertible’s top down.

The exhibits also included a photo of the Smith Mountain Lake home they vacationed at.

Cailin McDonnell testified that this is a photo of Jonnie Williams Sr.'s vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake, which was used by the McDonnells. (Exhibit in trial)

Cailin McDonnell-Young testified that this is a photo of Jonnie R. Williams Sr.’s vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake, which was used by the McDonnells. (Exhibit in trial)

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

At least twice now, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer has signaled he is frustrated by questions a Robert F. McDonnell defense attorney has directed at Jonnie R. Williams Sr.’s longtime personal assistant.

Spencer cut off attorney John Brownlee early in his cross-examination of Jerri Fulkerson, the assistant, after he seemed to conclude Brownlee was repeating questions about who was paying for her lawyer.

“We don’t need the summary question,” Spencer said. “She’s already answered all of that.”

Later, as Brownlee asked Fulkerson about a string of e-mails that she had testified about a day earlier, Spencer warned the attorney about injecting opinion into his inquiries. Brownlee had noted in a question that prosecutors had not shown Fulkerson every e-mail in a string.

“We don’t need you to editorialize,” Spencer said. “Just ask a question.”

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

John Brownlee, a defense attorney for Robert F. McDonnell, wrapped up his cross-examination of Jonnie Williams assistant Jerri Fulkerson by trying to suggest that the vitamin executive and former first lady Maureen McDonnell were romantically involved.

But Fulkerson wouldn’t bite.

Brownlee asked if Fulkerson was aware that Williams and Maureen McDonnell were “very close.”

“I don’t know how close they were,” she replied.

Was she aware, Brownlee continued, that for a 15-month period beginning in April 2011, Williams and the first lady had changed 1,200 cellphone calls or text messages?

Fulkerson said no.

Was she aware that the two had traveled to Michigan together?

“That was for business,” Fulkerson said.

And was she aware that they’d traveled to Salt Lake City and California together?

“With other people, yes,” she said.

  • Matthew Zapotosky
  • ·

Defense attorneys for former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, have cast prosecutors’ star witness, dietary supplement executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., as a “master manipulator” who is now lying to save himself.

His longtime personal assistant offered a different view on the witness stand Wednesday.

Jerri Fulkerson — who said she still works for Williams and the company he once ran — said her boss was “very generous,” bestowing golf clubs and Louis Vuitton swag on people he knew. She confirmed, in response to questions from defense attorney John Brownlee, that he sometimes would lavish gifts on women, in particular, although the judge stopped her from answering a question about whether in 2003 and 2004, he had paid bills for a woman living in South Carolina.

Through his questions, Brownlee sought to portray Williams as a braggart who liked the prestige that came with sharing his wealth. But Fulkerson seemed to take a more favorable view.

“I don’t know why he does it,” she said. “He just gives gifts.”

  • Laura Vozzella
  • ·

Now that Jonnie R. Williams’s assistant, Jerri Fulkerson, has described lush vacations, lavish gifts and loans the Star Scientific executive provided to the McDonnell family, it’s time for the defense lawyers to try to tear her down.

John Brownlee, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell’s lawyer, tried to raise questions about Fulkerson’s integrity during cross examination, most pointedly by asking about an instance in which she not only signed a document on Williams’s behalf, but also certified, as a public notary, that it was Williams’s signature.

Brownlee asked repeatedly about her practice of signing documents on Williams’s behalf, referring to that practice as “forgery” at one point. Fulkerson said it was something she did to accommodate the schedule of a boss who lived part of the time in Goochland County, Va., and part of the time in Florida, where she was based.

“How long did it take you to learn how to get his signature down?” Brownlee asked.

He later noted that Fulkerson had taken an oath as a notary to “faithfully perform” her duties. He asked Fulkerson if she thought it was a crime to have falsely notarized the document, saying she “essentially forged his signature and notarized he was there.”

“I don’t know that you would call it forgery,” said Fulkerson, who said her training to become a notary consisted of reading a book. “I did what he told me.”

Brownlee asked Fulkerson why she had refused to testify unless the government promised her immunity from prosecution.

“I’ve always been willing to cooperate,” she replied. “I felt like I needed protection. I just wanted none of my words used against me.”

  • Rosalind S. Helderman
  • ·

Robert F. McDonnell was hardly the only politician who flew on dietary supplement executive Jonnie R. Williams’s private plane, his assistant Jerri Fulkerson testified.

In response to questions from McDonnell’s defense lawyer, she said former state attorneys general and gubernatorial candidates Jerry Kilgore (R) – now an attorney for Williams – and Ken Cuccinelli II (R) had received campaign donations of private plane rides.

She also revealed that 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney had flown on the plane.

Defense attorney John Brownlee also asked about former presidential candidate John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, but Fulkerson said she could not recall whether he had ever flown on the plane.

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