by James A. Bacon
Virginia’s best soap opera in 20 years continued yesterday as Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., the star witness in the prosecution of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen, took the witness stand. Williams added little new substance to the public record that wasn’t listed in the indictments but he did flesh out a few details.
Williams made clear that his motives in assisting the Virginia’s First Family were purely mercenary. When asked why he lent his jet aircraft to McDonnell and other Virginia politicians, he said, “If you have a Virginia company, you want to make sure you have access to these people, and the airplane … accomplishes that. … He’s a politician, I’m a businessman.”
Explaining why he lent his jet to fly the governor to California and back, Williams said: “I figured that would give me five to six hours with the governor … to explain to him that I needed his help.”
Then, when asked if he regarded the first couple as personal friends, he responded, “This was a business relationship.”
The question is this: Did the McDonnells view the relationship the same way? If they did — if they viewed the relationship as a means to extract money and gifts in exchange for official favors — the feds have a strong case. If Bob and Maureen viewed the relationship differently, then it will be difficult to persuade a jury that they were engaged in a conspiracy to enrich themselves by misusing the authority of the governor’s office.
Defense attorneys made the prosecution’s case much more difficult to prove yesterday by claiming that the marriage was in tatters, there was a breakdown in communication between husband and wife, and that Maureen McDonnell, starved for attention, had a “crush” on Williams. A very clear implication is that Bob and Maureen had very different takes on the Williams relationship.
Only on one occasion, in October 2010, did Williams extract a “favor” from the governor directly, and that incident occurred before Williams began showering the family with personal gifts. When they were flying from California to Richmond in his jet, Williams told the governor about his anatabine vitamin supplement and asked for his help in getting Virginia’s medical schools to test it. McDonnell arranged a meeting with Bill Hazel, the Virginia secretary of health, but Hazel was unenthusiastic and the governor did not follow up or apply any other pressure. Governors routinely make introductions for campaign contributors, so the prosecution can’t make much of this event.
From there on out, Williams appears to have channeled his efforts through Maureen. Indeed, she was the one who initiated the requests for gifts — most notably the New York shopping expedition, the real estate loans and the wedding reception for daughter Caitlin. So, how was Bob responding to all of this? Apparently, he plans to tell the world his version of events at some point in the trial. Meanwhile, we have hints that he disapproved of some of the gifts, even while acquiescing to other largesse.
In December 2009, Williams offered to buy Maureen an Oscar de la Renta dress for an event in New York. Then he got a call from the governor’s office thanking him but turning down the offer. That call could not have occurred without the governor’s knowledge. It may have been initiated at his direction. One can surmise that, early in the relationship with Williams, McDonnell wanted to avoid the kind of entanglements that later ensnared him.
McDonnell also intervened when Williams bought son Bobby McDonnell a new set of golf clubs. As Bobby testified, “My father’s reaction was that I should give them back.” The gift, the father said, was excessive. (That’s after racking up thousands of dollars of expenses playing golf on Williams’ tab, so take McDonnell’s reservation with a grain of salt.) Interestingly, McDonnell lost that argument. Bobby said he had a friendship with Williams that was separate from his parents’ friendship; he viewed Williams as a mentor. Maureen sided with him. Bobby never returned the clubs.
The governor apparently also disapproved of Williams’ $15,000 gift to daughter Cailin to cover the cost of her wedding reception. Cailin had met Williams only briefly one time, shortly before in the Governor’s Mansion. Maureen had begged Williams for the money but she portrayed the situation very differently to Cailin, explaining, “Mr. Williams was so impressed with [her].” Dad apparently did not learn of Williams’ gift until federal investigators began asking questions about it. “He was very upset that she had taken that check,” Cailin testified.
The picture I’m getting is a man who lost control of his household. Bob McDonnell knew what was right and what was wrong but was unable to lay down the law. Working workaholic hours as governor, he was only intermittently engaged in family affairs and was incompletely informed. If Cailin’s statement is true that he didn’t learn of the $15,000 wedding reception gift until months later, it’s extraordinary that he was so disconnected from his own family finances. Meanwhile, Williams was engaging in routine communication with his wife — 1,200 phone calls and text messages — lending his jet to ferry around his children and playing golf with his sons. The governor told Bobby to return the golf clubs but couldn’t enforce his own edict.
While McDonnell may have had reservations about some of the gifts, it appears that he slid down a slippery slope. Eventually, he did accept a $20,000 wire transfer to help bail out MoBo Realty, his underwater Virginia Beach real estate investment. So far, that seems to be the most damning piece of evidence against him. It will be interesting to see what kind of defense he mounts against that. So far, I have seen no sign of it.
One last observation: It’s one thing for a man like Williams to cozy up to the governor by befriending him personally or even he and his wife befriending the McDonnells as couples. It’s another thing to do so by cozying up to his wife (1,200 phone calls and text messages) and mentoring his son. Williams invested not just money but time in those relationships. Were his motives as purely mercenary as he now says? Was he really in it just for the business? Talk about cold and calculating! It says a lot about his character, too.