by James A. Bacon
Jury selection for the trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen begins today. The 43-page federal indictment against the former First Family piles up a mass of detail to present a devastating portrait. Particularly damaging are revelations that the McDonnells intervened behind the scenes to help their friend and patron Jonnie R. Williams Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, in his efforts to establish research relationships with the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Opinion seems universal, even among those inclined to defend McDonnell, that the First Family’s behavior recounted in the indictments are beyond the pale — not only insufferably “tacky,” as a lawyer friend of mine put it, but downright shameful. However, before we convict the former governor of corruption, let us pause a moment and catch our breath. The indictment represents a cherry picking of the facts most damaging to the McDonnells. Let us also remember that the McDonnells will seek to establish a different narrative. At this point, we don’t know what that narrative will be. But whatever it is, I will hazard a guess that it will reveal a lot of information that has yet to surface about the relationship between the McDonnells on the one hand and Jonnie Williams Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, and his wife Celeste on the other.
The indictment consists of a recitation of facts shorn of context. The feds charge that the events described amount to “a scheme to use Robert McDonnell’s official position as the Governor of Virginia to enrich the defendants and their family members.” They list a series of events and communications in chronological order, creating the strong impression that favors Williams performed for the McDonnells were directly related to favors the McDonnells performed for Williams. That may be an accurate impression. But it also might be a deceptive one. The way in which the information is presented precludes the possibility that anyone was acting out of personal friendship.
Missing from the indictment is any evidence describing the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell and Mr. and Mrs. Williams, which would be highly relevant in interpreting the events described by prosecutors. Celeste Williams barely figures in the picture at all. Reading only the indictment and the news reports based upon it creates the impression that Maureen McDonnell and Jonnie Williams were extraordinarily close — almost creepily so. What kind of man takes his friend’s wife shopping in New York? As outside observers, we have to consider the possibility that Maureen McDonnell and Celeste Williams were close, too, that Mrs. Williams was a participant in the shopping expeditions and conceivably that she cajoled her husband into helping the McDonnells financially out of friendship. If that were the case — and I have no idea if it is or not — it would complicate the prosecution’s narrative immeasurably.
From the published record, we have only a few clues by which to piece together a portrait of the two families’ friendship.
“We had a very positive relationship for three or four years,” a somber McDonnell told The Associated Press last August.
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 two men met in March 2009 when McDonnell was running for governor and Williams, a major bankroller of a previous Republican candidate, Jerry Kilgore, loaned him his airplane. When McDonnell was elected November 3, according to the indictment, “they had no personal relationship and were merely professional acquaintances at that time.” Continue reading