Corruption Trial Begins Monday

Jul 24, 2014

Credit Steve Helber/AP via NPR

The federal corruption trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, begins on Monday.  Federal prosecutors allege the former first couple performed official acts to promote Star Scientific’s products in exchange for roughly $165,000 in gifts and loans from its ex-CEO, Jonnie Williams—then failed to disclose most of those gifts.

McDonnell says he never made such an agreement--and the company received NO quid pro quo.

The indictment alleges that in 2010, before Williams gave his gifts, he discussed the health benefits of his dietary supplement, Anatabloc, with then-Governor McDonnell.  Former state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Goldman says McDonnell’s father was suffering from one disease the product was touted as helping.

“I can see Jonnie Williams using his best persuasive powers, saying to McDonnell and his wife, ‘I like my product. I think you’ll like it. I really want to cure Alzheimer’s. Your family had it. I just want a chance. You know, the FDA is on my case or the AMA doesn’t like my stuff, but I really think this could help.’”

McDonnell’s office arranged a meeting between Williams and State Health Secretary Bill Hazel. The first couple attended a seminar, where the company sought to convince doctors and health professionals to recommend a related product to patients.  Prosecutors allege the gift-giving began the following year with a luxury New York shopping trip at the first lady’s request. Other eventual gifts from Williams included their daughter’s wedding catering, golf outings and vacations for the McDonnell family, air travel, a Rolex requested by the first lady to give to her husband, and $120,000 in loans for their rental properties. Goldman says that led to charges of “obtaining property under color of official right”—meaning that prosecutors believe the gifts were exchanged for “official acts.”

“At some point, they’re saying, Williams and McDonnell had a meeting of the minds. It’s not written down—or presumably they would have—it’s not going to be written down. It’s probably going to be implicit, what they call kind of the ‘wink, wink’—everybody sort of knows what’s going on.”

Additional “official acts” involved promoting Star’s products, hosting or attending promotional events, and asking state employees to meet with Williams, who sought help and research grants. McDonnell said he gave the company no special treatment.

“My administration provided Mr. Williams the same routine courtesies and access to state government that I and every other governor before me afforded to thousands of individuals, companies, charities, and other organizations, whether they were donors—or not.”

Since McDonnell’s disclosure forms listed only vacations and loans, federal prosecutors believe it’s evidence that he was hiding something.  But he did comply with STATE law, which set NO limits on gifts that governors could accept. State law also did not require them to disclose gifts TO family members or FROM personal friends. The former governor has said he believed Williams was his friend. Political analyst Bob Holsworth says McDonnell thought he did nothing to violate the law. 

“And what’s occurred in this situation is that the federal government has come in and said, ‘Well, you didn’t break any Virginia law because Virginia essentially had very, very lax laws. But what you’ve done is that you’ve violated federal laws here.’ And the governor, again, has now suggested that this is even a novel interpretation of federal law.” 

The gifts and loans have been returned or paid back. Star Scientific never did receive state grants. The company has left Virginia and reorganized with a new name and CEO. Prosecutors have given Williams blanket immunity. But if found guilty, the McDonnells could spend the rest of their lives in prison.