The Washington Post

Ex-Va. governor Robert McDonnell guilty of 11 counts of corruption

The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman and Matt Zapotosky break down the trial of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell and his wife. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

A federal jury on Thursday found former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of public corruption — sending an emphatic message that they believed the couple sold the office once occupied by Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to a free-spending Richmond businessman for golf outings, lavish vacations and $120,000 in sweetheart loans.

After three days of deliberations, the seven men and five women who heard weeks of gripping testimony about the ­McDonnells’ alleged misdeeds unanimously found that the couple conspired to lend the prestige of the governor’s office to Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in a nefarious exchange for his largesse.

The verdict means that Robert McDonnell, the first governor in Virginia history to be charged with a crime, now holds an even more unwanted distinction — the first to be convicted of one.

He and his wife face decades in federal prison, although their actual sentences are likely to fall well short of that. U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer set a sentencing hearing for Jan. 6.

The former governor, a onetime Republican rising star considered for the 2012 vice-presidential nomination, was convicted of all 11 corruption-related counts brought against him. In a small victory, he was acquitted of lying on loan documents.

Verdicts of individual counts from the McDonnell trial.

The former first lady was convicted of eight corruption-related charges and an additional count of obstruction of justice. She, too, was acquitted of falsifying a bank record.

The verdict was read aloud in front of a courtroom packed with reporters and supporters of the former first couple. When the clerk announced that the ex-
governor had been found guilty of the first of 14 counts the couple faced, Robert McDonnell, 60, closed his eyes tightly, shaking in his seat as he began to weep.

Maureen McDonnell, 60, also started to cry. At the eighth guilty count, her husband buried his face in his hands. By the end, he was slumped in his chair, still crying. Two of the couple’s daughters, seated behind them, sobbed — the cries from one punctuating each guilty verdict as it was read aloud.

It was a stunning outcome for the couple, all the more so because in December, McDonnell declined to accept a plea agreement in which he would have been found guilty of just one felony count of lying on a loan document, according to people familiar with the case. Maureen McDonnell would have faced no charges.

The jury’s verdict brings to a close a trial that seemed to grip the nation since it began in July with defense attorneys’ shocking revelation that the McDonnells’ marriage was shattered, and that would be a core element of their attempt to beat the charges.

The proceedings over the next five weeks resembled a soap opera at times, as the McDonnells endured a humiliating dissection of their relationship amid unflattering allegations about the lavish lifestyle supplied by Williams.

As the former first couple emerged from the courthouse, reporters swarmed, shouting questions. Robert McDonnell thanked the crush of media on the sidewalk for “the way you’ve handled this.”

“All I can say is my trust remains in the Lord,” he said.

Defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill, saying he “didn’t expect” this outcome, assured reporters that the former governor would appeal. “I’m obviously very disappointed,” he said.

William Burck, an attorney for Maureen McDonnell, said the former first lady, too, would appeal.

The McDonnells, who have been living apart since the trial began, left in separate cars. A few women could be heard shouting “We still love you!” at the former governor.

Shortly before that, top law enforcement officials declared that justice had been done.

“This was just a difficult and disappointing day for the commonwealth and its citizens,” said U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente, speaking outside the courthouse. “Public service frequently requires sacrifice and almost always requires financial sacrifice. When public officials turn to financial gain in exchange for official acts, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.”

Three jurors who spoke about the verdict said the decision was an emotional one, particularly considering Robert McDonnell’s long career of public service.

But they said they believed that the facts and the law were clear and that the verdict had not, in the end, been a difficult one to reach.

Like the trial that consumed the state’s energy for weeks, the verdict shook Virginia’s political community, which has had little experience with public-corruption cases against top officials. The state’s elected leaders swiftly expressed sorrow.

“I am deeply saddened by the events of the trial that ended in today’s verdict, and the impact it has had on our Commonwealth’s reputation for honesty and clean government,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said in a statement.

McAuliffe said he and his wife, Dorothy, “continue to pray for the McDonnell family and for everyone who was affected by this trial.”

Through an attorney, Williams, the former chief executive of Star Scientific, declined to comment on the verdict.

Jurors heard from 67 witnesses, including Williams and the former governor, who took the stand in his own defense for nearly 24 hours over several days. They saw memorable photos of McDonnell flashing a Rolex watch and riding in a Ferrari, and they heard sometimes tearful testimony from the governor’s children and former staffers.

They were shown mortgage applications, telephone records more charts than they probably care to remember — all designed to convince them that the governor and his wife conspired to take bribes from Williams.

The case had more nuanced, legal questions, too: Namely, did McDonnell and his wife perform or promise to perform “official acts” for Williams in exchange for $177,000 in gifts and loans? Prosecutors argued that they did.

Those acts, they said, came in the form of meetings McDonnell arranged for Williams with state officials, a luncheon Williams was allowed to throw at the governor’s mansion to help launch a product he was trying to sell, and a guest list Williams was allowed to shape at another mansion reception meant for health-care leaders.

Defense attorneys argued otherwise, saying there was no evidence that McDonnell even knew what Williams wanted. And what he did want — state-funded studies of his company’s dietary supplement, Anatabloc — he never got, defense attorneys stressed.

But prosecutors apparently convinced jurors that the governor entered into a corrupt bargain with Williams. They relied on Williams’s own insistence that the governor always knew why he was showering the McDonnell family with gifts.

They backed up his story by using other evidence to weave a strong circumstantial case that an agreement had been reached between the businessman and the first couple based on the close timing of Williams’s gifts and loans and efforts by the McDonnells to assist Williams and his company.

In one instance, McDonnell directed a subordinate to meet with Williams on the same night he returned from a free vacation at his lake house. In another, six minutes after e-mailing Williams about a loan, McDonnell e-mailed an aide about studies Williams wanted conducted on his product at public universities.

Defense attorneys emphasized that even Williams did not describe an explicit, corrupt bargain with the governor. And they noted that Williams was testifying with generous immunity agreements, which they said motivated him to lie about his relationship with the McDonnells.

Throughout the trial, jurors were attentive but expressionless. Their verdict made clear that they considered each defendant’s role in each charge.

They acquitted Maureen McDonnell, for example, on two public-corruption counts connected to a $20,000 loan in May 2012 that her husband texted Williams directly about.

They also found her not guilty of one charge connected to a January 2012 golf outing Williams funded for her husband and two sons at the exclusive Kinloch Golf Club, near Richmond, but guilty of another connected to a May 2011 golf outing her husband went on with their sons and future son-in-law.

The investigation into the couple’s relationship with Williams consumed much of Robert McDonnell’s last year in office. It halted what had been a steady rise through the ranks of Republican politics for the former state attorney general, which seemed likely to culminate in a run for president in 2016.

McDonnell had just concluded the final legislative session of his four-year term, which included the passage of his signature bipartisan transportation plan, when The Washington Post reported in March 2013 that Williams had paid $15,000 for wedding catering for one of the McDonnells’ daughters.

The wedding came three days after Maureen McDonnell flew to Florida and praised Williams’s product at an investor meeting and two months before the first couple attended an event at the governor’s mansion for Williams’s company.

As the governor’s time in office came to a close, he struggled in private with the growing criminal investigation, while publicly, more and more details of his relationship with Williams emerged. Among the embarrassing revelations: Williams had purchased a $6,500 Rolex for the governor, lent the governor his Ferrari for use on an expensive vacation and taken the first lady on a $20,000 New York shopping spree.

McDonnell finally apologized in July 2013, after The Post reported that Williams’s largesse had included $120,000 in low-interest loans to the first lady and to a small real estate company the governor and his sister owned.

The former first couple were indicted in January, 10 days after McDonnell concluded his term in office. Even as he repeatedly apologized for poor judgment, he maintained that he and his wife had broken no law.

Tina Griego, Steve Hendrix, Jenna Portnoy, Laura Vozzella and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.

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