RICHMOND — An aide who dispensed legal and policy advice to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell testified Tuesday that he and other administration officials worried about the propriety of a product launch event at the governor’s mansion and about a Rolex watch that Mr. McDonnell received from his wife through a wealthy benefactor.
The mansion event is one of the benefits that former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie R. Williams Sr. received and the Rolex is one of the gifts Mr. McDonnell got in return, prosecutors allege in the public corruption case against the former governor and his wife, Maureen. The McDonnells are charged in 14-count indictment with promoting Mr. Williams’ products in exchange for $165,000 in gifts and secret loans.
Jasen Eige, who was Mr. McDonnell’s chief counsel and policy adviser, said he and other top aides were concerned when they learned about Mrs. McDonnell’s plan to host the official launch of Mr. Williams’ signature product Anatabloc at the mansion in August 2011.
“We didn’t think that was appropriate use of state property,” Mr. Eige said.
He said he thought the event was toned down to just a luncheon so that Mr. Williams could distribute planning grant funds to state medical school researchers, which allayed his concerns. The governor’s aides also edited a Star Scientific press release about the event to remove mentions of the governor and first lady, he testified, because they did not want it to look like McDonnell was pitching a particular product — although “there is no bright-line rule in Virginia” prohibiting such an endorsement.
Mr. Eige and J. Tucker Martin, who was Mr. McDonnell’s communications director, also aired their concerns about public perception when the then-governor showed up at a meeting wearing the Rolex. Mr. McDonnell told them his wife had given it to him for Christmas. Mr. Eige said he agreed when Mr. Martin told their boss he probably shouldn’t be wearing it. Mr. McDonnell said he didn’t think it was real, but Mr. Martin said that didn’t matter.
According to Mr. Eige, he never saw Mr. McDonnell wear the watch again. He only learned later that Mr. Williams had paid for it. Mr. Williams testified previously that Mrs. McDonnell asked him to buy the watch.
Mr. Eige also testified about receiving an email from Mrs. McDonnell telling him to call Mr. Williams because researchers at two Virginia universities weren’t returning their calls after the Star executive doled out $200,000 in planning grants at the launch event. He said he didn’t think it was appropriate for the governor’s staff to get involved in the issue.
“Frankly, I was kind of hoping it would go away,” he said.
He called Mr. Williams’ attorney, former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, and asked him to talk to Mr. Williams. Nothing else happened, he said.
Molly Huffstetler, a senior adviser to the state health secretary, testified that she met with Mrs. McDonnell and Mr. Williams at the request of the governor. She said Mr. Williams did most of the talking. Her notes from the meeting indicated that Mr. Williams said a state tobacco commission was going to finance a study of Anatabloc.
The same day, she sent Mr. Williams an email thanking him for his time and pledging “to continue to work alongside the first Lady as we identify how best to move forward.”
Mr. McDonnell’s attorney, Henry Asbill, asked Ms. Huffstetler if she would describe that message as “basically a blow-off email.”
“That’s probably fair,” said Ms. Huffstetler, adding that she never intended to follow up — and that neither she nor anyone in her office ever did.
The jury also heard from Dr. John Clore, vice president of clinical research at the Medical College of Virginia. He said that in 2011, he received a phone call from Johns Hopkins medical researcher Dr. Paul Ladenson about the potential health benefits of anatabine, the tobacco-derived compound that is the main ingredient in Anatabloc. Dr. Clore emailed several colleagues about the call, writing that Mr. Williams was a “very good friend” of the governor and that Mr. McDonnell wanted to sponsor clinical trials of Anatabloc.