RICHMOND, Va. — Bob McDonnell had just been elected governor of Virginia when a wealthy businessman who had donated the use of his private jet during the Republican’s campaign requested a meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.
The governor-elect obliged and brought along his wife, Maureen, who told Jonnie Williams she needed a dress for the inauguration the following month, according to a federal indictment charging the couple with corruption and lying to investigators.
Williams agreed to buy her an Oscar de la Renta gown, but a Bob McDonnell aide said it would be inappropriate and nixed the idea, according to the indictment.
Peeved, the former Washington Redskins cheerleader and future first lady fired off an email to the staffer.
“I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget,” the email said. “I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke and have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.”
She ultimately told Williams, then the CEO of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific Inc., she could not accept the dress but would take a “rain check.”
That scenario played out in December 2009, according to the indictment, and was allegedly the start of a four-year pattern of Virginia’s first couple squeezing gifts and loans out of a benefactor who expected them to promote his company’s products in return.
The indictment suggested the McDonnells cashed in that first rain check many times over: shopping sprees for designer clothes for Maureen McDonnell, a vacation stay at Williams’ multimillion-dollar Smith Mountain Lake retreat, $70,000 in loans for a family real estate venture, $15,000 in catering expenses for a daughter’s wedding, golf outings for the governor and family members.
The day after the Smith Mountain Lake vacation, which included use of Williams’ Ferrari, Williams was in a meeting with the McDonnells and a senior state health official, pitching Star Scientific products and even suggesting that government employees could serve as a control group for research studies, according to the indictment.
Also that day, the indictment said, Maureen McDonnell persuaded Williams to buy a $6,500 Rolex watch that she presented to her husband as a gift with “71st Governor of Virginia” engraved on the back.
The government alleges there were other instances of the McDonnells using their influence to help Williams’ company, including hosting an Executive Mansion reception for Star Scientific to launch it signature product with university researchers in attendance.
Twelve of the 14 counts in the indictment are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, two by up to 30 years. Possible fines range from $250,000 to $1 million.
McDonnell has apologized and said he returned more than $120,000 in gifts and loans to Williams, but has insisted he did nothing illegal. He said Tuesday night that federal prosecutors stretched the law to make a case against him and his wife.
“I will use every available resource and advocate that I have for as long as it takes to fight and prevail against these false allegations and the unjust overreach of the federal government,” McDonnell said as he read from a statement. He took no questions.
“I repeat again emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal friendship and his generosity,” he said. He described the federal investigation as “indescribably agonizing” and said that “the federal government’s case rests entirely on a misguided legal theory.”
Maureen McDonnell joined her husband at the news conference but did not speak. Her attorney, William Burck, said in a statement that the Justice Department “has overreached to bring these charges.”
Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman said the charges represented the Justice Department’s commitment to rooting out public corruption.
“Ensuring that elected officials uphold the public’s trust is one of our most critical responsibilities,” he said.
McDonnell’s lawyers filed a strongly worded motion Tuesday evening seeking instructions and recordings of any comments federal prosecutors made to the grand jury about the legal validity of the charges.
“To bring today’s indictment, the federal government has concocted a never-before-used legal theory manufactured for the sole purpose of prosecuting Governor McDonnell and his wife,” they wrote.
The McDonnells’ defense team filed a motion Wednesday morning to postpone their arraignment and bond hearing by one week, to Jan. 31, because one of the former governor’s lawyers is out of the country and would have a tough time getting back by Friday. The court denied the motion later Wednesday, meaning the case will proceed at 10 a.m. Friday in Richmond.
McDonnell left office earlier this month after four years in the governor’s office. Virginia law limits governors to a single term.
The federal investigation overshadowed the final months in office for the once-rising star of the Republican Party. At one time, McDonnell had been considered a possible running mate for Mitt Romney. McDonnell delivered the 2010 Republican response to the State of the Union Address, and became chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2011.
The 43-page indictment outlines several instances in which the McDonnells touted the legitimacy of Star Scientific’s dietary supplement Anatabloc.
Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration informed Star Scientific that it has been unlawfully promoting Anatabloc as a drug by citing studies suggesting it can be used to treat multiple sclerosis and other diseases. The company has said it is working with the FDA to resolve that issue as well as an allegation that it marketed the products without required federal approval.
In a statement Tuesday evening, Star Scientific attorney Abbe David Lowell said “it is a sad day when criminal charges are brought against any elected official,” and the company will continue to cooperate with authorities in the McDonnell case.
Republican lawmakers in Virginia were quick to support McDonnell. House Speaker William J. Howell and other GOP leaders issued a statement calling McDonnell their “good friend” and saying they were praying for the former governor and his family.
“We believe in the rule of law and are confident in the ability of our legal system to render the rightful judgment, whatever it may be,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, Democrats used the indictments to call for stricter ethics rules for lawmakers. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation this year that would place a $250 limit on gifts to lawmakers. And new Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, signed an executive order his first day in office prohibiting gifts to the governor, his family or staff of more than $100.
The scandal unfolded last year around the same time as a separate politically embarrassing case involving a former Executive Mansion chef who was accused of embezzlement and, in turn, accused McDonnell’s children of taking mansion food and supplies for personal use. The governor later reimbursed the state and the chef pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors.
The fallout seeped into the general election, with McDonnell playing a low-key role in support of Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who lost to McAuliffe.
Tuesday’s indictment against the McDonnells includes one count of conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud; three counts of honest-services wire fraud; one count of conspiracy to obtain property under color of official right; six counts of obtaining property under color of official right; and one count of making false statements to a federal credit union.
The former governor is also charged with an additional count of making a false statement to a financial institution, and Maureen McDonnell is charged with one count of obstruction of an official proceeding.
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