- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted Tuesday on federal corruption charges stemming from their relationship with a wealthy businessman in a case sure to test the ethical boundaries between friendship and political influence.

Former health supplement company executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. plied the McDonnells with gifts and loans and, in return, received access in order to peddle his products, charging documents filed Tuesday claim.

Mr. McDonnell on Tuesday night reiterated that he did nothing wrong — Virginia law does not require the disclosure of gifts to family members — and insisted that the gifts were motivated by nothing more than friendship.

But now the former governor and first lady face 14 federal charges, including conspiracy to defraud citizens of Virginia and obtaining property under color of official right.

Mr. McDonnell also was charged with giving a false statement to a credit union for neglecting to mention a $50,000 loan from Mr. Williams. Mrs. McDonnell faces a charge of obstructing an official proceeding for attempting to return to Mr. Williams some items of clothing he bought for her after an investigation had begun.

The McDonnells were scheduled to make an initial court appearance in U.S. District Court in Richmond on Friday. If convicted, each could face a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

SEE ALSO: Farewell speech: McDonnell apologizes to Assembly

The 43-page indictment also seeks the forfeiture of more than $140,000 as well as dozens of gifts received by the McDonnells, including a silver Rolex watch engraved with the phrase “71st Governor of Virginia,” several pairs of high-end Louis Vuitton shoes, a slew of golf apparel and equipment and 30 boxes of Anatabloc — the signature product of Star Scientific.

Prosecutors said that, in exchange for gifts and loans, Mr. McDonnell arranged meetings for Mr. Williams with Virginia government officials, hosting and attending events at the governor’s mansion designed to promote Mr. Williams’ product among government officials and industry researchers.

A defiant Mr. McDonnell on Tuesday night addressed the charges before reporters at a Richmond law firm, presenting himself as someone who has been “falsely and wrongly accused and whose public service has been wrongly attacked.”

“While I deeply regret accepting these legal gifts and loans from Mr. Williams, all of these now have been returned or repaid with interest,” he said in a seven-minute statement. “I have apologized for my poor judgment and I accept full responsibility for accepting these legal gifts and loans.”

The former governor cited two “independent and nonpolitical investigations have confirmed that Mr. Williams and Star Scientific received nothing from the state.” He said the charges stem from a “misguided” legal theory that would suggest that facilitating an introduction or arranging a meeting is a federal crime if it involves a political donor or someone who gave someone a gift.

He also said he intends to fight the charges.

“I will use every available resource and advocate that I have for as long as it takes to fight and prevail against these false allegations and the unjust overreach of the federal government,” said Mr. McDonnell, who appeared alongside his wife and daughter and did not take questions afterward.

The indictment put Mrs. McDonnell firmly at the center of the case, facilitating contact between the governor and the wealthy businessman. It details how, after Mr. Williams dropped more than $18,000 on an April 13, 2011, shopping trip for her in New York City, she ensured that Mr. Williams was seated next to the governor during a Union League Club event that evening.

The indictment also spotlighted Mrs. McDonnell’s request that Mr. Williams foot the bill for an Oscar de la Renta dress to wear at her husband’s January 2010 inauguration.

A McDonnell staffer expressed concern over the prospect of Mr. Williams purchasing the dress for Mrs. McDonnell, causing her to decline the offer but to take a “rain check.”

The first lady responded in an email that contained a candid disclosure of the McDonnells’ personal financial situation as they moved into the governor’s mansion.

“I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget. I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt,” Mrs. McDonnell wrote to the unidentified staffer. “We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!”

Over the course of the next two years, the first couple continued to publicly support Star Scientific. Mrs. McDonnell flew on Mr. Williams’ private jet to a Star Scientific event in Florida within weeks of striking a deal for the family to borrow $50,000 from Mr. Williams. During the same period, Mr. Williams provided the family $15,000 to pay for wedding expenses for the McDonnells’ daughter, the indictment states.

Mr. Williams is not named in the indictment, but descriptions of a “JW” match publicly known accounts of his relationship with the McDonnells.

The charges were the outgrowth of an investigation into the former executive mansion chef, who was fired in early 2012 after he was accused of stealing food from the mansion kitchen. The chef, Todd Schneider, countered by saying he was told to take food as payment for catering events.

In response to the charges filed Tuesday, Mr. McDonnell’s attorneys immediately filed a motion requesting the disclosure of recordings of the prosecutors’ statements to the grand jury about the legal validity of the accusations.

“Bob McDonnell is an innocent man,” the 27-page filing begins.

It goes to call Mr. McDonnell’s actions “routine political conduct” and draws comparisons to activities of the president and Mr. McDonnell’s predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine.

“The government’s rickety legal foundation, moreover, underlies a precarious factual case, built largely from immunized testimony purchased with under-the-table promises to a key witness who would otherwise face criminal liability and massive financial penalties,” the motion states, referring to Mr. Williams’ cooperation with investigators.

Mr. McDonnell said repeatedly that he never attempted to hide his friendship with Mr. Williams and that neither Mr. Williams nor his company got special benefits out of their close-knit relationship, though the indictment hints at ways that Mr. Williams appeared to be seeking influence.

The court papers note that Mr. Williams proposed the idea of having Virginia government employees use Anatabloc as a control group for research studies. He also sought to influence an outside party, first the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission and later state universities, to provide either grants or research for the study of anatabine — the active ingredient in the company’s products.

Star Scientific was featured prominently at the Governor’s Mansion, once during the launch of the company’s Anatabloc product and a second time during a 2012 reception for health care leaders in the state.

Many people inside and outside the state were stunned that Mr. McDonnell, once considered a potential vice presidential pick or Cabinet selection, ended up mired by the scandal over lavish gifts and loans from Mr. Williams.

The Republican leadership in Virginia’s House of Delegates issued a statement expressing its disappointment, while highlighting Mr. McDonnell’s public service and saying the legal process should be allowed to run its course.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, issued a statement saying he was “obviously troubled” by the developments.

“As this case progresses, it is my sincerest hope that justice will be served and that Virginians get the answers to which they are entitled,” he said.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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