RICHMOND — Just six minutes after then-Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell e-mailed a wealthy businessman about a $50,000 loan, he sent a note to a staffer asking to discuss state university studies of the man’s new dietary supplement.
The staffer, former chief policy adviser Jasen Eige, testified Tuesday that he didn’t know about the loan negotiations between his boss and Jonnie R. Williams Sr., then the chief executive of the supplement company. But he said that he was concerned about acting on the governor’s February 2012 e-mail.
“This was just not something the governor’s office should be involved in,” Eige said. “It wasn’t our role, our place to get in the middle of something like this.”
Eige’s testimony came as federal prosecutors continued working to build their case that McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, conspired to sell the influence of the governor’s office in exchange for more than $150,000 in luxury goods and large loans from Williams.
The former policy adviser, who testified on the seventh day of the federal corruption trial, was among several onetime staffers who said they had simmering concerns about the first couple’s dealings with Williams.
Still, in response to questions from defense attorneys, they also described many of the interactions with Williams as routine and said they did not feel pressured to help him accomplish his goals.
The defense argues that McDonnell made no promises to Williams and that the businessman received nothing more than ordinary political courtesies.
To prove their case, prosecutors will have to convince jurors that McDonnell struck a corrupt bargain to take official acts to assist Williams and his company, Star Scientific, in exchange for his largess. The law allows them to use evidence that McDonnell tried to hide the relationship as proof that he knew his actions were problematic.
Prosecutors found support from witnesses on Tuesday in both areas.
A doctor at Virginia Commonwealth University who was interested in conducting research on Williams’s product Anatabloc testified that he believed a Star Scientific event he attended at the governor’s mansion in August 2011, which was timed to coincide with the introduction of the new supplement to the market, was an “official government function.”
John Clore said the invitation to the lunch came embossed with the official seal of Virginia and the names of both the governor and the first lady. During 15 hours on the witness stand, Williams has testified that he wanted the prestige of the governor’s office to persuade scientists to study his product and lend it credibility.
Health policy aide Molly Huffstetler, who had referred derisively to Williams as “tic tac man” in a 2011 e-mail, testified that she would not have met with the executive at the governor’s mansion in August 2011 had the governor not asked that a health official attend.
That request came on the night before the session took place, and on the same day that McDonnell returned from a vacation at Williams’s lake house. The staffer said she did not know about the trip at the time.
Still, Huffstetler helped the defense when she testified that she considered it part of her job to take meetings with people such as Williams. “It was a function of the office,” she said.
An hour after the meeting, she sent Williams a polite note urging him to seek scientific evidence to support anecdotes he shared about Anatabloc. She agreed with a defense attorney’s assessment of the e-mail as a “blow-off.”
Eige testified about a number of occasions when he worked to scale back Williams’s desire for more robust advocacy from the governor’s office.
He said Williams had sought to conduct an outdoors public event announcing the product on the grounds of the 200-year-old mansion, to occur on the same day as the lunch for researchers.
“We didn’t think that was an appropriate use of state property or the mansion,” he said.
Eige said he called Williams’s attorney and the event was scrapped.
He likewise nixed a plan for Maureen McDonnell to join the corporate board of Star Scientific, possibly in a paid capacity, because of concerns about how that might look.
And Eige said he called Williams’s attorney again to explain his worries in February 2012 when the first lady asked him why the university studies Star sought had bogged down. She told Eige in an e-mail that her husband also wanted to see the studies move ahead.
Eige said he was not certain whether to believe the first lady that the issue was one that was important to her husband. “I was hoping it would go away,” he said.
Eight days later, he received the e-mail directly from the governor.
Eige testified that he could not recall whether he spoke to McDonnell about the issue, as the governor requested, but said he never called the universities and he was not pressured to pursue the issue. In any case, he said, his concerns about Williams were centered on fear of negative publicity rather than that a crime was being committed.
Huffstetler and Eige both testified that they did not know Williams had lent money to the first family or about some of his personal gifts to them, as did the governor’s scheduler, Monica Block.
For Eige, that lack of knowledge came even though, as the governor’s lawyer, he assisted in completing his financial disclosure form for the 2011 calendar year. He testified that he traded drafts of the form with the governor, who carefully reviewed and edited it.
Eige said McDonnell did not mention during that process that Williams had paid $15,000 for the catering at his daughter’s wedding or spent more than $3,000 on golf outings that year that included the governor.
On the form, the governor marked that a member of his immediate family held a liability to an individual creditor of at least $50,000. But he described the creditor as being employed in “medical services” and never named Williams as the lender to Eige.
“At the time, I figured it was some kind of medical bill,” Eige testified.
In all, Williams lent $120,000 to Maureen McDonnell and to a small real estate company owned by the governor and his sister in 2011 and 2012.
As for the more than $6,000 Rolex watch that Williams bought, Eige said the governor told him in a January 2012 meeting that it was a Christmas present from his wife.
Eige said he did not believe the governor and his wife could afford such an expensive timepiece, but the governor told him: “Well, I don’t even think it’s real.” Eige still advised his boss not to keep wearing it.
“That’s not any better, really,” he said he told the governor.
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.