RICHMOND — The former Virginia governor and his wife walked down the hallway of the federal courthouse hand in hand, past a row of reporters and supporters who had begun lining up more than an hour before the couple’s hearing was scheduled to begin.
Everyone in the State Capitol, it seemed, wanted to see Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, appear in court for the first time and enter formal pleas to the corruption charges they face.
The speaker of the House of Delegates, the House majority leader and former members of the McDonnell administration joined the couple’s children and other supporters on the wooden benches of two courtrooms. What they heard was little more than a formality. The McDonnells entered not guilty pleas and requested a jury trial, scheduled to begin July 28 and expected to last about five weeks. Magistrate Judge David J. Novak ordered them to surrender their passports but allowed them to remain free on personal recognizance.
The optics, though, were significant.
Among those who joined the McDonnells at the courthouse were House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and his wife, Cessie; House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights); Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk); state Sen. John A. Cosgrove Jr. (R-Chesapeake); and Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). U.S. marshals had to turn some away from the first of the two hearings, which was held in a courtroom said to seat 48 people.
The McDonnells were charged Tuesday in a 14-count indictment that lays out, in 43 detailed pages, a storyline of largess that was first recounted by The Washington Post in March. Authorities allege that over nearly two years, the McDonnells repeatedly asked Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. for loans and gifts of money, clothes, golf fees and equipment, trips and private plane rides. The gifts and loans totaled at least $165,000.
In exchange, authorities allege, the McDonnells worked in concert to lend the prestige of the governor’s office to Williams’s struggling company, Star Scientific, a former small cigarette manufacturer that now sells dietary supplements.
In court Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry twice read the formal charges against the McDonnells — first at an initial hearing before Novak, and then at a formal arraignment before U.S. District Judge James Spencer — and recited the decades-long maximum prison sentences that convictions could bring.
Maureen McDonnell kissed her children as she took a seat next to her husband. The couple said little more than “yes, your honor” throughout the proceedings, although Maureen McDonnell told a judge in response to routine questions that she was taking prescription medication for “concentration and anxiety.” Asked for their pleas, both spoke confidently.
“It’s not guilty, your honor,” said Robert McDonnell.
“I plead not guilty, your honor,” said his wife.
The pleas were hardly a surprise. The 59-year-old former governor rejected an offer to plead guilty to one felony bank fraud charge that had nothing to do with corruption in office, people with knowledge of the conversations said. That deal would also have allowed Maureen McDonnell, 59, to avoid charges, those people said. In court motions and in public statements, the McDonnells and their attorneys have asserted that the couple did nothing illegal. One of the motions compared prosecutors to the Roman Emperor Caligula, imprisoning people “for violating laws written in tiny lettering on a pillar too high to see.”
Lawyers for Robert McDonnell had initially sought to postpone his first court appearance because a member of his legal team was out of the country in a place that would require “three airplane flights and a boat ride” to return to the D.C. area. But Novak ordered the hearing to proceed as scheduled, and the attorney, Henry W. Asbill, made it back in time.
Novak said Friday that he did not delay the proceedings so that he could sooner drive home the point that “this case is going to be tried in the courtroom, and it is not going to be tried in the media.” Spencer later expanded that warning, threatening to impose sanctions on lawyers who injected “speculation” or “hyperbole” in their legal motions.
Reporters, though, were undeterred. A swarm of TV cameras surrounded and followed the McDonnells as they left the courthouse. Some supporters applauded, and one woman yelled: “We love you, Governor McDonnell.”
For his part, the former governor said he was “blessed” to have great friends and family. Then he and his wife got into a silver Jeep with a McDonnell campaign sticker on the bumper, and it pulled away.
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.