McDonnell, wife found guilty of corruption


New York Times News Service

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RICHMOND, Va. — Former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of corruption in federal court Thursday, after a trial that halted the political ascent of the one-time Republican star and peeled back the couple’s private life to the bone.

As he was pronounced guilty on 11 counts of conspiracy, bribery and extortion, Bob McDonnell covered his face with his hands as his head fell nearly to the defense table. His wife, convicted on nine counts, looked straight ahead. There were sobs from the seats behind them where their five adult children sat.

The seven-man, five-woman jury returned its findings on the third day of deliberations here, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Both McDonnells, who now face years in prison, were acquitted of lesser charges of making false statements on loan applications. Maureen McDonnell was convicted on a charge she alone faced, of obstructing a grand jury investigation by trying to make a gift of $20,000 worth of designer dresses and shoes appear to have been a loan.

“This is a difficult, disappointing day for the Commonwealth,” said Dana J. Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office prosecuted the McDonnells. “When public officials turn to financial gain for official actions, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.”

Asked whether Bob McDonnell would appeal, his lawyer, Henry W. Asbill, said, “Of course,” adding that he was “shocked” by the verdict.

Defense lawyers claimed that the McDonnells were being targeted by an overzealous Justice Department, which was treating common political courtesies by a public official for a supporter as criminal offenses.
Adam Lee, the FBI agent in charge of the Richmond office, offered a different view outside the courthouse Thursday.

“I think this case sends an important message that the FBI will engage, and engage vigorously, to any credible allegation of corruption,” he said.

The McDonnells were indicted on 14 counts of conspiracy, bribery, extortion and related charges stemming from what prosecutors said was a scheme to sell the office of governor, for $177,000 in gifts and cash from a dietary supplements executive. McDonnell was limited by law to one term, leaving office in January.

While other governors around the country have faced corruption charges in recent years, none of those cases unfolded in the national glare like the McDonnell melodrama, largely because the former governor was a rising Republican figure, whose unexpected defense was that his picture-perfect marriage had, in fact, been Photoshopped.

Bob McDonnell, who carried his wife over the threshold of the Executive Mansion the day of his inauguration, portrayed her in his testimony as a harridan whose yelling left him “spiritually and mentally exhausted,” and who was so cold that she did not reply to an email pleading to save their marriage.

The defense used the demeaning portrait to argue that the McDonnells were too estranged to conspire criminally to trade favors with the vitamin executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

The jury, which began deliberating at midday Tuesday after hearing from 67 witnesses over five weeks, had the difficult task of deciding whether gifts from Williams and Bob McDonnell’s actions on his behalf over two years added up to bribery and extortion.

At issue was whether the McDonnells accepted the largess with corrupt intent. They were not forbidden under Virginia ethics laws from taking $120,000 in undocumented loans from Williams, nor the goodies he bestowed - including a custom golf bag and Rolex for the governor, Armani dresses for the first lady, a $15,000 check for their daughter’s wedding at a time the first couple owed $31,000 on their credit cards and were hemorrhaging money on beachfront property.

The defense argued that actions Bob McDonnell took on behalf of Williams’ company, Star Scientific, the maker of the supplement Anatabloc, were mere political courtesies. The former governor testified that he had given Williams “the bare, basic, routine access to government and nothing more.”

But prosecutors argued that Bob McDonnell’s actions followed so closely after Williams’ gifts that they were strong circumstantial evidence of a corrupt bargain. At one point, Bob McDonnell emailed an aide to come see him about “Anatabloc issues” just six minutes after discussing a $50,000 loan with Williams.

The McDonnells were shown to have used Williams like an ATM. In May 2012, Bob McDonnell texted the executive, suggesting, “per voice mail, would like to see if you could extend another 20k loan.” Williams replied within minutes: “Done.”

The government dismissed the defense strategy of portraying the McDonnell marriage as broken, and Maureen McDonnell as a “nutbag” who was smitten with Williams. The former governor was trying to “throw his wife under the bus,” the prosecutor, Michael S. Dry, said in closing statements.

But for the McDonnells, the humiliating portrayal was meant to sow doubt about a criminal bargain by giving jurors an alternate reason for why Maureen McDonnell took Williams’ gifts. She was “gaga” for the rich executive, her lead lawyer told jurors. They exchanged 1,200 texts and phone calls. Through Williams, she found emotional solace and a way to spite her penny-pinching husband, her lawyers said.

“To Maureen, this was about getting away from Bob,” her lawyer, William A. Burck, told jurors. “You might find the mild obsession with Jonnie a little weird,” he added. “But weird is not a crime.”

The government relied heavily on the testimony of Williams. On the stand his version of conversations he had with the McDonnells seemed to dot the I’s and cross the T’s on the legal definition of a corrupt, quid pro quo deal. He said, for example, that before he handed over checks for $65,000 in 2011, Maureen McDonnell told him, “The governor says it’s OK for me to help you, but I need you to help me with this financial situation.”

Williams said he had reached out to the governor to confirm the arrangement because the governor was “the breadwinner” in the family. Bob McDonnell, he said, thanked him for his help.

When Bob McDonnell took the stand he denied that interaction and much else in Williams’ testimony. He said that he had no advance knowledge of a $50,000 check from Williams to his wife in 2011, and that he was too beaten down by their marital rows to demand she return the money.

“I just needed to pick the battles with my wife,” he said wearily on the stand.

Bob McDonnell apologized for bad judgment in accepting Williams’ cash in loans he negotiated himself a year later, as well as numerous $300 golf rounds for himself and his sons. But he insisted he had not sold his office.
“No sir, we do not make decisions based on money,” Bob McDonnell snapped at one point at a prosecutor during cross-examination.

To discredit Williams, the defense hammered on the fact that he was testifying under a promise that he would not be prosecuted. Defense lawyers portrayed him as a super-salesman who had conned the McDonnells and was now trying to con jurors. Under cross-examination, a defense lawyer allowed Williams to ramble on without interruption for 45 minutes about his business career, in which he grandiosely claimed that Anatabloc was a medical breakthrough on a par with penicillin. (It has been withdrawn from the market after a Food and Drug Administration warning.)

As suggested in their body language at the defense table, where they never interacted, and in their comings and goings from the courthouse, Bob and Maureen McDonnell now move in separate spheres. He said he was living with a Roman Catholic priest, a frequent supporter in court, for the duration of the trial. Their five children would hug each parent in the courthouse corridor, or drape arms around their father as he pushed through a scrum of sidewalk TV cameras.

Leaving the courthouse Tuesday after deliberations began, Bob McDonnell said that the past 18 months had been tough on his family, but that he drew strength from his 38 years of marriage and the five children he shared with his wife.

“I think we’re stronger than we’ve ever been.”