UPDATED: Aug. 30, 2014 10:06 a.m.
RICHMOND, Va. — The corruption trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife has boiled down to this: Did they knowingly trade special favors for the $165,000 in loans and gifts they admit they took from a dietary supplements promoter?
If so, they could be convicted of bribery and conspiracy and perhaps face decades in prison.
Jurors were expected to begin deliberating Tuesday after getting final instructions from the judge.
Convicting a once-popular governor who was a rising star in the Republican party before the scandal broke isn’t a given. Even prosecutors acknowledged in closing arguments Friday that if jurors believe the governor’s testimony, they should probably acquit the former first couple.
The evidence, prosecutors said, should leave no doubt that McDonnell was lying when he denied any connection between the loans and gifts Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams showered on his family, and the actions he and his wife took to tout Anatabloc, the company’s tobacco-based dietary supplement.
“He was on the Jonnie Williams gravy train, and he and Jonnie Williams had a deal: Do what you can when opportunities arise and I’ll keep paying,” prosecutor David Harbach told the jury.
The McDonnells held an official launch party for Anatabloc in the governor’s mansion, and used their influence to promote the product any way they could, he said. Maureen McDonnell touted it at medical conferences, and aides believed the governor wanted them to get it covered by the state health care plan. Williams’ company ultimately stopped selling it under pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, which said claiming it could treat ulcers, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease was illegal.
Prosecutors said the most damning pieces of evidence were two emails, sent six minutes apart in February 2012. The first, from McDonnell to Williams, sought to finalize the terms of a $50,000 loan from Williams. In the second, McDonnell asked a top aide about difficulties in setting up studies at two Virginia public universities that Williams hoped would bolster his product’s credibility.
Prosecutor David Harbach referred to the first email as the “quid” and the second email as the “quo” in the quid pro quo needed for conviction on most counts.
The fact that Williams ultimately didn’t get the studies he sought is not relevant, Harbach said: McDonnell’s intent was clear.
McDonnell took the stand in his own defense and forcefully denied any corrupt bargain. He said he considered Williams a friend, and didn’t see anything wrong with accepting his gifts and loans because Williams never asked him for anything.
“We don’t make decisions based on money. No sir,” McDonnell said when pressed about the emails.
McDonnell also testified that it was his wife who received many of the gifts and arranged for some of the loans behind his back, and that he was unaware until the end because theirs was “a marriage on hold.” That led to lengthy testimony about their personal lives and the introduction of a forlorn email from McDonnell to his wife saying he was exhausted by her “fiery anger and hate.”
In Friday’s closing, Bob McDonnell’s lawyer, Henry Asbill, said testifying about their failed marriage was painful, but necessary to defend themselves.
“Their humiliation has been severe and it has been nationwide,” Asbill said. “This was a troubled, dysfunctional marriage.”
Prosecutor Michael Dry said the testimony “is salacious and sad, but at the end of the day it just doesn’t matter.”
Asbill faulted prosecutors for even bringing the case, saying it had gaping holes. The biggest: “Jonnie didn’t get anything. Nothing. This case is all ‘quid,’ no ‘quo.'”
Asbill said McDonnell never wavered, even as he acknowledged occasionally forwarding emails he received from Williams to his staff. It was no different than what he would do for any Virginia-based business, McDonnell said. And “if you believe Bob McDonnell, that’s all there is to it. Your decision is quick and easy,” Asbill told jurors.
The closing argument on behalf of Maureen McDonnell highlighted one of the legal quirks in the case: In some ways, she benefited legally when her husband said she accepted Williams’ gifts behind his back, including a New York City shopping spree worth $20,000. Because being first lady doesn’t qualify as serving as a public official, she can’t be accused of taking bribes, so the case against her relies on allegations that she conspired with her husband to use his office to promote Anatabloc.
Her lawyer, William Burck, said jurors may find her requests for lavish gifts “tacky.” But they weren’t criminal, he argued.
Prosecutors countered that the McDonnells defied belief. Jurors were asked: How could McDonnell assert that he knew nothing about the New York City shopping spree, since she was buying designer dresses the very same night that he and Williams sat next to each other at a political event?
“Folks, how do you miss that?” Harbach said to the jury. “You decide who to believe.”
Harbach acknowledged that it’s difficult to sit in judgment of a former governor. Swept into office in a landslide five years ago, he’s also a former attorney general and state legislator, and before the scandal broke he was talked about as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney.
But he said McDonnell’s efforts to wrap himself in the state flag by calling attention to his decades of public service were a farce. Harbach said McDonnell “stomped” on the flag, and in closing, he reached back to some other Virginia governors who earned the respect of their citizens.
“This is not how governors behave,” Harbach said. “Don’t sit there and try to stand on the coattails of Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.”
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