RICHMOND, Va. — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife were indicted Tuesday on corruption charges after a monthslong federal investigation into thousands of dollars in gifts the Republican received from a businessman and political donor.
A bond hearing and arraignment is set for both defendants Friday in U.S. District Court in Richmond.
“Today’s charges represent the Justice Department’s continued commitment to rooting out public corruption at all levels of government,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Raman said in a news release. “Ensuring that elected officials uphold the public’s trust is one of our most critical responsibilities.”
McDonnell left office earlier this month after four years in the governor’s office. Virginia law limits governors to a single term.
A federal investigation overshadowed the final months in office for the once-rising star of the Republican Party, with authorities looking into gifts he and his family received from Jonnie Williams, the former CEO of dietary supplements maker Star Scientific.
In July, McDonnell apologized and said he had returned more than $120,000 in loans and other gifts from Williams. He insisted that he had done nothing illegal on behalf of Star Scientific but said he’d do “things differently today than choices I made a couple of years ago.”
On Tuesday, McDonnell repeated that apology but insisted he had done nothing wrong.
“I deeply regret accepting legal gifts and loans from Mr. Williams, all of which have been repaid with interest, and I have apologized for my poor judgment for which I take full responsibility,” McDonnell said. “However, I repeat emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal generosity and friendship.”
Henry Asbill, a lawyer for McDonnell, told The Associated Press: “My client looks forward to telling his side of the story to an unbiased judge and jury and is very confident that he will prevail.”
William Burck, the attorney representing McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, also said his client is innocent.
“The Department of Justice has overreached to bring these charges,” he said in a statement. “Thankfully, however, the Department is not the sole arbiter in our justice system, which ultimately is not ruled by the unfounded suspicions of prosecutors but rather the law and the facts as decided by the judge and the jury.”
The indictment alleges that the McDonnells solicited gifts and loans in exchange for promoting and obtaining research studies for Star’s products, including the dietary supplement Anatabloc. The governor allegedly arranged meetings with other government officials for the Star Scientific CEO, listed in the indictment only as “JW,” and hosted events at the Executive Mansion to promote the company’s products to doctors and researchers.
The indictment portrays the McDonnells as deeply in debt and Williams as a benefactor who was willing to lavish them with luxury gifts, loans and trips in return for McDonnell’s influence promoting Star Scientific’s products. It alleges the relationship began during McDonnell’s campaign for governor and continued through most of his term.
Among the benefits the McDonnells allegedly received from Williams and his company were thousands of dollars in designer clothing for the first lady, $15,000 for catering costs of their daughter’s wedding, tens of thousands of dollars in loans for the couple’s rental property in Virginia Beach, golf outings for the governor and other family members, a vacation at Williams’ multimillion-dollar home at Smith Mountain Lake and a Rolex watch with “71st Governor of Virginia” engraved on the back.
According to the indictment, the McDonnells submitted paperwork to other lenders that did not disclose loans from Williams.
The indictment also says that after being interviewed by investigators, Maureen McDonnell tried to impede the investigation by writing a handwritten note to Williams falsely suggesting that the two had previously agreed she would return certain gifts rather than keep them.
Maureen McDonnell’s first attempt to obtain help from Williams in December 2009 failed, according to the indictment. Williams allegedly agreed to buy her an Oscar de la Renta dress for the governor’s inauguration, but senior staffer for the governor-elect nixed the idea. In response, she sent an email to the staffer that read:
“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. We are broke and have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.”
Maureen McDonnell told Williams she could not accept the dress but would take a “rain check.”
Virginia Republican lawmakers were quick to express their support for McDonnell as well as their sadness and disappointment that charges were filed. House Speaker William J. Howell and other Republican House leaders issued a statement calling McDonnell their “good friend” and saying they were praying for the former governor and his family.
“We believe in the rule of law and are confident in the ability of our legal system to render the rightful judgment, whatever it may be,” the statement said.
Meanwhile Democrats used the indictments to call for stricter ethics rules for lawmakers. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation this year in reaction to McDonnell’s gift scandal that would place a $250 limit on gifts to lawmakers. And new Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, signed an executive order his first day in office prohibiting gifts to the governor, his family or staff of more than $100.
“This is a sad day for Virginia, but I remain optimistic that we can work together to reform our system in order to prevent episodes like this from occurring ever again,” McAuliffe said in a statement.
The scandal unfolded last year around the same time as a separate politically embarrassing case involving a former Executive Mansion chef who was accused of embezzlement and, in turn, accused McDonnell’s children of taking mansion food and supplies for personal use. The governor later reimbursed the state and the chef pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors.
The fallout seeped into the general election, with McDonnell playing a low-key role in support of Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who lost to McAuliffe. Asked why he hadn’t been more visible, McDonnell replied, “That’s a question for the candidate.”
Tuesday’s 14-count indictment against the McDonnells includes one count of conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud; three counts of honest-services wire fraud; one count of conspiracy to obtain property under color of official right; six counts of obtaining property under color of official right; and one count of making false statements to a federal credit union.
The former governor is also charged with an additional count of making a false statement to a financial institution, and Maureen McDonnell is charged with one count of obstruction of an official proceeding.