UPDATED: Jan. 24, 2014 12:51 p.m.
ORIGINAL: Jan. 24, 2014 8:49 a.m.
RICHMOND, Va. (CBSDC/AP) — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges that they traded their influence for tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans, and both will be allowed to remain free until their trial.
Bob and Maureen McDonnell were released on their own recognizance Friday but were ordered by U.S. Magistrate Judge David Novak not to leave the country. The former governor’s lawyer, John Brownlee, told Novak the defendants already have surrendered their passports.
Clearly exasperated by months of news stories about the case based on anonymous sources, Novak sternly lectured lawyers from both sides not to discuss the case with the media. He warned that such conduct violates a local court rule and could result in contempt of court charges.
“This case is going to be tried in the courtroom; it is not going to be tried in the media,” Novak said. “The gamesmanship with the media ends now.”
Their trial has been set for July 28.
Novak had asked lead attorneys for both sides to review the rule with their colleagues before the hearing. He asked if they had done so and if they understood the ramifications of breaking the rule, and they said they had.
Bob and Maureen McDonnell, holding hands, arrived for the bond hearing early and huddled with defense lawyers outside the tiny courtroom, where they eventually were joined by an entourage of about two dozen family members and supporters. The former governor leaned across the railing and embraced a couple of them before the start of the nine-minute proceeding.
They said nothing in court other than answering routine questions about whether they understood the charges. After it was over, they headed upstairs to another courtroom for arraignment.
The former Republican governor and his wife were indicted on 14 counts Tuesday after a lengthy federal investigation of his relationship with a former CEO of a dietary supplement maker.
Federal prosecutors allege the McDonnells accepted more than $165,000 worth of loans and gifts from Jonnie Williams, the former head of Star Scientific Inc. Prosecutors say that in return, the McDonnells improperly helped Williams promote his company’s products.
The investigation crippled the chances of attaining higher office for McDonnell, once a rising star in the Republican Party who had even been considered a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012. He has apologized for what he describes as bad judgment and has said he repaid about $120,000 in gifts and loans. But he has steadfastly denied breaking any laws.
The indictment handed down Tuesday accuses the couple of accepting gifts such as shopping sprees for designer clothes and accessories, a Rolex watch, $15,000 in catering expenses for a daughter’s wedding, golf outings and a lake-house vacation stay that included use of Williams’ Ferrari. McDonnell also received $70,000 in loans for a family real estate venture, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors said the couple in turn promoted Star Scientific’s products and gave special treatment to Williams, including arranging for him to meet a state health official. The couple also opened up the Executive Mansion for a launch party for one of the company’s signature products.
The McDonnells and their lawyers say the couple did nothing for Star Scientific that they wouldn’t do for any other Virginia company. The former governor’s lawyers say in court papers that the gifts weren’t bribes because McDonnell never gave Williams anything that wasn’t a routine courtesy doled out by every politician, from the president on down.
The charges came 10 days after McDonnell, limited by the Virginia Constitution to a single four-year term, left office.
Frank Shafroth, former chief of staff to Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), says it’s a shame the Commonwealth’s lack of ethics teeth has led to the gift scandal growing to this magnitude.
“It’s the federal government that is trying to protect the public trust of Virginia tax payers and citizens is the part that makes is so terrible,” Shafroth said. “Whether a jury is able to convict him or not on any or all of these charges is almost secondary.”
If convicted, the McDonnells could face a long stretch in prison. Twelve of the charges are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, two by up to 30 years. Potential fines range from $250,000 to $1 million.
WNEW’s George Mesthos contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter.
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