Published this morning in the Roanoke Times:
By Paul Goldman, James Bacon and Mark J. Rozell
Did Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sanction using tainted trial testimony against Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell? In closing argument, the prosecution said jurors could “discount everything, every single word uttered by” Star Scientific founder Jonnie R. Williams and still find the McDonnells guilty of public corruption. Yet Williams had been the government’s chief witness and sole accuser. He spent nearly a week on the witness stand. Determining “who is most believable about the interactions between the governor and Williams” had been called the key to the case.
The Virginia native had appeared on Uncle Sam’s scam radar since the 1980s, after the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated false claims by an earlier Williams company. When Williams met Gov. McDonnell, he hawked “Anatabloc,” a nutritional supplement based on a curative “discovery” touted as more important than penicillin. The indictment charged Williams had given $138,804 in gifts and loans in exchange for the governor’s agreement to help Star promote the product.
Williams initially defended the First Couple but testified against them pursuant to a rare immunity deal shielding him from prosecution for crimes not related to the McDonnell case. Prosecutors promised jurors he would be completely truthful.
Indictment paragraph 28 remained key to the government’s corruption conspiracy timeline:
“Before agreeing to provide the requested financial assistance to the defendants, JW [Jonnie Williams] spoke directly with ROBERT MCDONNELL about the $50,000 loan . . . ROBERT MCDONNELL informed JW that the rental income from the defendants’ rental property in Virginia Beach was not covering the bills for those properties. JW agreed to provide the $50,000 loan . . . .”
Prosecutors conceded Maureen McDonnell had personally asked Williams for the loan on May 2, 2011. She promised to reciprocate by helping Star. Williams testified understanding she spoke solely for herself, not her husband. Virginia’s first lady is not a public official under federal anti-corruption laws. While disgraceful, this two-way deal did not break the law.
The Star pitchman personally delivered a $50,000 check payable to her on May 23 when they met at the Executive Mansion. Gov. McDonnell swore he didn’t learn about the check until two weeks afterwards. The prosecution self-evidentially believed it crucial to show his knowledge prior to her accepting the money.
During testimony, Williams said he couldn’t remember when he spoke to the governor, or even whether he had spoken by telephone or in person. But he remained adamant, saying, “I am not writing his wife any checks without him knowing about it.”
The prosecution trumpeted this “evidence,” declaring, “What does this tell you about who the loan was really to?”
But his testimony crumbled. During cross-examination, defense counsel asked Williams:
Question: “Before those checks were cut, between the 2nd of May and the 23rd of May, you never talked to Bob McDonnell about those checks, did you?”
He then insisted the conversation occurred while delivering the checks on May 23.
Prosecutors proffered no corroborating phone record or eyewitness account. Furthermore, while Williams claimed the governor said he needed the money to keep his Virginia Beach rental properties afloat, Maureen McDonnell put the $50,000 in her account and used most of the sum to purchase Star Scientific stock, not to cover beach property expenses.
In closing argument, the prosecution told jurors, “Who cares?” whether Williams might have lied since the government had “more evidence than necessary” to convict. Read more.
Goldman is a Richmond lawyer and Democratic Party activist. Bacon publishes the Bacons Rebellion blog covering public policy issues in Virginia. Rozell is Acting Dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.