RICHMOND — Jurors in the federal corruption case against Bob McDonnell are being asked to consider whether the former Virginia governor took gifts and loans in exchange for performing “official acts,” but late Thursday lawyers were still haggling over how that term should be defined.
Judge James R. Spencer heard arguments from the prosecution and defense Thursday over the proposed instructions he will deliver to the jury on definitions and considerations when debating the couple’s innocence or guilt.
Mr. McDonnell’s defense argued that bribery must constitute a payment made in exchange for a promise to perform a specific act — not a generalized hope of some future unspecified benefit. Prosecutors, meanwhile, maintain that bribery can occur if there’s a course of action or course of conduct, and it need not be one specific act.
The distinction is crucial because the prosecution has laid out a largely circumstantial case of Mr. Williams plying the McDonnells with gifts and loans and obtaining access to the governor via luncheons and events at the Executive Mansion. Mr. McDonnell has said he never really knew what Mr. Williams wanted from him and treated him as he would any constituent. The defense has pointed out that one of Mr. Williams‘ ultimate goals — obtaining state funding for research on Anatabloc — never came to fruition.
“If the prosecution has had a big problem in presenting the case right now, it’s that they haven’t done, since their opening statement, a tremendously good job in framing the case — telling a story and telling the narrative about what happened here,” said former Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime state politics observer Bob Holsworth, who has attended the trial.
The nearly five-week trial, which has featured dozens of witnesses and hours of testimony from the former governor and the wealthy businessman with whom he is accused of conspiring, is set for closing arguments Friday.
Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, face charges they accepted more than $170,000 in gifts and loans in exchange for helping former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams Sr. promote his business and the nutritional supplement product Anatabloc.
The government has given Mr. Williams, who had been investigated in a securities fraud dragnet, broad immunity in exchange for his testimony — a fact the defense team is sure to hammer home during closing arguments as well.
In addition to the charges related to public corruption or “honest services,” Mrs. McDonnell also faces an obstruction charge. Additionally, the couple is accused of falsifying loan documents by understating their outstanding liabilities to Mr. Williams.
Coming into the trial, Mr. Holsworth said, the bank fraud charge looked like a “slam dunk” for the prosecution.
“I think the defense has actually done a relatively good job here of muddying the water on that loan, suggesting that there was a draft process going on, that the bank left off some things when it automatically filled out the application and sent it back to him, that he always had the intention of doing the right thing,” he said.
The McDonnells have separate legal teams, meaning that there will be closing arguments on behalf of both the former governor and the former first lady.
That also means the jury could theoretically return a verdict that’s not uniform — though Mr. Holsworth said jurors could have the wrenching details revealed about the McDonnells’ personal lives in mind if they’re weighing whether to return a guilty verdict for her and not her husband.
“I have a feeling that a jury might be a little wary of convicting her [on obstruction] and not him in that instance because in some ways, a year in jail might be better than the two or three weeks of testimony that she had to sit through about her own self in the last couple of weeks,” he said.