MARTINSVILLE, Va. — For four years, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and Gov. Bob McDonnell shared a friendship that afforded Williams access to the pinnacle of Virginia political power and provided McDonnell and his family a taste of the good life the multimillionaire corporate executive loved to flaunt.
That friendship is now strained — if not dead — as a federal criminal investigation into their relationship pushes them in conflicting directions, creating an election-year scandal that has consumed the final months of the governor’s term.
“We had a very positive relationship for three or four years,” a somber McDonnell told The Associated Press this week in one of the most frank and open public discussions he has held yet on the subject. “Right now, we’re just in a different situation.”
Williams, through his attorney, Jerry W. Kilgore, declined to be interviewed for this story.
The men became friends in 2009 and 2010 when Williams’ then-obscure nutritional supplement-making company, Star Scientific Inc., contributed $108,448 in corporate jet travel to McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign and political action committee. Williams became even more generous with personal gifts or loans to the McDonnell family that topped $145,000, including five-figure checks to two daughters for their weddings and a $6,500 Rolex watch engraved for the “71st Governor of Virginia.”
McDonnell, who carefully couched his relationship with Williams in the past tense during the AP interview, said the enterprising venture capitalist had been his kind of guy: a self-made man from working-class stock who, like the governor, got his start in the health care services and supplies field. Both are in their late 50s. They discovered they had even both honeymooned in the same spot, Bar Harbor, Maine.
“I admire people who are entrepreneurial, who are finding ways to create opportunities in Virginia and that’s one of the reasons that when I first met him back in ’09 (or) ’10 that we established a friendship,” McDonnell said. “We both had big families. He had four kids, I had five.
“We had interesting early discussions about the field of health care and about our families,” he said.
The McDonnell and Williams families grew quite close. Williams and his wife, Celeste, were familiar faces at official Executive Mansion functions and, even more important, personal mansion guests of the governor and first lady Maureen McDonnell. They were on a select list of guests for the private 2011 wedding of Cailin McDonnell and gave her a $15,000 check as a gift. Williams gave Cailin’s sister Jeanine a $10,000 check before her wedding this spring. Maureen McDonnell was Williams’ guest on a New York City shopping spree, and she persuaded him to buy the governor the expensive timepiece, The Washington Post reported.
With the friendship in full bloom, Star Scientific representatives were lobbying senior McDonnell administration officials to include the company’s anti-inflammatory supplement, Anatabloc, in every state employee’s basic health benefits package. The request was denied, and a review by Democratic former Attorney General Anthony Troy found no evidence that either Williams or the company received any benefit, appointment, or other special treatment from state government during McDonnell’s term.
When the FBI began interrogating people close to McDonnell in an ongoing inquiry into whether he used the authority of his office to benefit Williams or his company, however, the friendship began to fray. Then this month, it became clear that it had snapped.
In July, McDonnell publicly apologized for accepting Williams’ undisclosed largesse and announced he was returning all tangible gifts and repaying the monetary gifts and loans.
“I know who my friends are, and I have been blessed over the last 22 years to have a lot of great friends,” he said.
Earlier this month, Williams and his company announced their cooperation with federal authorities and said they expected to avoid criminal charges.
Citing advice from his private legal team, McDonnell would not discuss any aspect of the investigation with the AP.
Rich Galen, a spokesman for the governor who is working with McDonnell’s lawyers, was not so reticent.
“Apparently, the U.S. government has given Star Scientific a free pass for unspecified misdeeds in return for the testimony of Jonnie Williams,” he said in response to word that Williams and his company were cooperating witnesses.
“Governor Bob McDonnell has had a 37-year unblemished record of military and civilian government service. Jonnie Williams has been in trouble with government entities since the earliest days of his business career,” Galen said in an email statement first shared with The Virginian-Pilot newspaper last weekend.
While Williams has had success, he’s also run afoul of federal and state regulators. A former optical business was fined for fitting contact lenses without a license, and later failed. Williams also had to pay back nearly $300,000 in ill-gotten profits after the Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of using research with false claims to promote a medical business.
Star Scientific, meanwhile, is facing a federal securities probe focused on transactions involving its securities since 2006 and three shareholder lawsuits alleging the company made false or misleading statements to boost Anatabloc.
Galen said neither McDonnell nor his lawyers know what Williams or company officials have told investigators, “but, at a minimum, there is a wariness among the legal team about Mr. Williams.”
For his part, Williams has refrained from commenting publicly about the case or his friendship with the governor.
The specter of prosecution has taken a visible toll on the 59-year-old McDonnell. His hair is grayer. His trademark Irish grin is seldom seen. He has lost weight, which he ascribes to a new workout regimen. There is a new weariness about him, even apart from his demanding 22-city tour promoting his administration’s initiatives — an annual weeklong swing that this year was to have been his victory lap.
Barred by Virginia’s unique constitutional prohibition from serving consecutive terms, McDonnell should be fulfilling a lame-duck governor’s role as cheerleader-in-chief and rainmaker for Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP nominee as his successor, at this late stage in Virginia’s neck-and-neck governor’s race.
Last August, McDonnell was enormously popular, a rising Republican governor, a top campaign proxy for Mitt Romney and on Romney’s vice-presidential short list. Now, the scandal has rendered him politically radioactive, forcing the GOP to fight on with its sitting governor on the sidelines.
“We’ve had better years,” lamented Wendell Walker, the longtime chairman of the Republican Committee for Virginia’s 6th Congressional District. “As a Christian, I believe in forgiveness. I’m not one of those guys who’s going to throw someone under the bus.”
McDonnell has drawn inward, finding solace mostly with family.
“I don’t watch TV,” he said. “I have pretty much stayed away from reading the headlines because I’m doing other things with my time now that are more productive.”
One McDonnell friend who huddled with him during a stop Monday in Lynchburg was Jerry Falwell Jr., chancellor of Liberty University and namesake son of the late founder of the school and the Moral Majority. He’s not sure McDonnell has really lost any friends.
“I think when something like that happens, your friends are still your friends and your enemies are going to pretend like they were your friends,” Falwell said, “but they always were your enemies.”
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