RICHMOND — Federal prosecutors filed criminal corruption charges against former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on Tuesday, saying they used his office for their own gain.
Hours later, McDonnell accused prosecutors of a false and malicious attack and vowed to fight the charges with “every available resource and advocate that I have for as long as it takes.”
The allegations in the indictment outline a shady relationship between the McDonnells and a wealthy supporter, and it says McDonnell's staff initiated that relationship. Even before McDonnell took office in 2010, prosecutors say, his wife solicited a high-dollar dress to wear to her husband's inauguration from then Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams Sr.
Williams, they allege, hoped to win legitimacy for an experimental dietary supplement, and all the while his company was disputing a multimillion-dollar tax bill with the state.
Family members took golf outings, a lakehouse vacation and at least one spin in a borrowed Ferrari, the indictment alleges. McDonnell has admitted to taking at least some of the gifts and loans — the total tops $160,000 — but says Williams and his company received no favors from him or from administration officials.
Williams got “the same routine courtesies and access to state government that I and every other governor before me afforded to thousands of individuals, companies, charities and other organizations, whether they were donors or not,” McDonnell said Tuesday night.
He said that if the federal government charged every public official who facilitated meetings or showed support for political donors, “then nearly every elected official, from President Obama on down, would have to be charged.”
But the indictment alleges that Williams pushed for access and favors, and under federal law it's illegal for public officials to accept gifts when they know the giver wants something. The indictment says Williams made it clear he wanted something from the state as early as October 2010, when he let McDonnell use his plane to fly to a political event in California.
During the flight, Williams — identified in the indictment as JW — told McDonnell “that Star Scientific needed the assistance of the Virginia government,” the indictment says.
If convicted, the McDonnells could face up to 30 years in prison on the corruption charges, along with a $1 million fine, as well as 20 years in prison for the false statements and wire fraud charges and fines of up to another $750,000. The 14-count indictment alleges that the McDonnells got more than $135,000 in direct payments as gifts and loans, as well as thousands of dollars in golf outings and numerous other things of value.
McDonnell repeatedly referred to these gifts as “legal” Tuesday as he read from a statement. His wife, a daughter and son-in-law stood quietly by as he spoke. He took no questions, and five young men who declined to identify themselves blocked reporters from following the family as they retreated from the podium and out of the lobby at Williams Mullen, the high-profile law firm building where the press conference took place.
“While I deeply regret accepting these legal gifts and loans from Mr. Williams, all of these now have been returned or repaid with interest,” McDonnell said. “I have apologized for my poor judgment, and I accept full responsibility for accepting these legal gifts and loans.”
Support and dismay
The indictment prompted state officials to rally round the former governor, though many expressed sadness for him, for his family and for Virginia.
State Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw confirmed Tuesday that he gathered in Speaker of the House William Howell's office to call federal prosecutors before the indictment to speak to McDonnell's good character. Prosecutors didn't want to talk to them, he said.
“I think it's unfortunate,” Saslaw said. “I've seen a lot worse up here than that, OK? ... Misjudgment? Absolutely. But that's not a crime.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he was praying for the McDonnells.
“I am obviously troubled by the charges that federal prosecutors have made against Governor McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, and the message that this period in our history sends about how government in this commonwealth is run,” he said.
“Gov. McDonnell has been a friend of mine for 30 years,” said state Sen. Thomas “Tommy” Norment, R-James City. “Very, very sad day.”
“The circumstances surrounding these indictments may be disheartening, but they need not undermine the public's confidence in the underlying integrity of our government or of those entrusted to serve in it,” Norment said. “Every elected public official is human, and humans make mistakes.”
The indictment says McDonnell's relationship with Williams started during his gubernatorial campaign, when his staff sought the use of Williams' private plane.
After the election, Mrs. McDonnell asked Williams to buy her a dress for the inauguration, but McDonnell's staff told her it would be inappropriate.
“Bob is screaming about the thousands I'm charging up in credit card debt,” she wrote in an email, according to the indictment. “We are broke. ... I need to get this done.”
Fifteen months later, Williams took Maureen McDonnell on a shopping trip during which he spent more than $19,000 on clothing and jewelry for her, the indictment says. That trip came six months after the California flight during which Williams told McDonnell he needed the state's help, the indictment alleges.
McDonnell told Williams he would put him in touch with Secretary of Health and Human Resources William Hazel. Williams wanted funds from the state Tobacco Indemnification Commission for research efforts and hoped medical colleges at state universities would conduct studies of a new diet supplement, the indictment says.
It also says he wanted to use state employees in research studies on one of his supplements
$50,000 loan, $15,000 for catering
A month after her New York shopping trip, at a private meeting with Williams at the governor's mansion, Maureen McDonnell asked Williams for a $50,000 loan, the indictment says. At the meeting, she told Williams “that she could help Star Scientific but that she needed [Williams'] financial assistance,” the indictment says.
She also told him them that the couple didn't know how they would pay for a daughter's wedding and said they needed $15,000 for catering.
Williams spoke to McDonnell himself about the $50,000 loan, then wrote the family checks, the indictment says. After that, Williams wrote McDonnell asking him to start a study of Star Scientific's new diet supplement product at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University medical schools, the indictment says.
About the same time, Star Scientific sought funding from the state Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission since the company couldn't afford to pay for the studies itself. The company also wrote to researchers at state universities, saying that the McDonnells supported research of its products, the indictment says.
Shortly after that, Williams let the McDonnells use his mansion at Smith Mountain Lake. During their stay, the indictment claims, Mrs. McDonnell emailed Williams a picture of her husband driving Williams' Ferrari.
When the McDonnells came back to Richmond, Maureen McDonnell and Williams met with a senior state health official to discuss researching Star Scientific's products at state universities, a Tobacco Commission grant and the possibility of using state employees as a control group in a research project.
It was around that time that McDonnell told Williams she would like to get a Rolex watch for her husband. Williams bought one, engraved “71st Governor of Virginia,” even though he “expressed concern whether Robert McDonnell would actually wear such a luxury watch given his role as a senior government official,” the indictment says.
Maureen McDonnell, who had bought some Star Scientific stock after the couple received the $50,000 loan, later that year told her broker she wanted the shares out of her name in order to avoid Virginia's financial disclosure requirements of public officials and their families, the indictment says.
Soon after that, she talked up Star Scientific's products at a company-sponsored event for Virginia doctors, and again at a similar event in Michigan.
Star Scientific kept pushing for studies at state universities, and in February 2012 Maureen McDonnell emailed a senior member of the governor's staff telling him to contact Williams, the indictment alleges.
“Gov wants to know why nothing has developed w studies after [Williams] gave $200,000. I'm just trying to talk w [Williams] Gov wants to get this going w VCU MCV,” the indictment quotes the email as saying, referring to VCU's Medical College of Virginia.
A week later, after an exchange with Williams about a loan to a real estate venture of his in Virginia, McDonnell himself sent an email to the same staff member asking him to see him about the Star Scientific research request.
Three weeks after that, and after nailing down details about a $50,000 loan from Williams to the real estate venture, McDonnell asked the cabinet secretary responsible for state employees' health plans to meet with Star Scientific officials to discuss its diet supplement product. During that session, he took some of the product from a pocket and told the official that the product was beneficial and that he used it himself, the indictment says.
Politicians generally reacted by saying they hated to see a man they considered a friend in such trouble, and hated the message the indictment sent the nation about Virginia.
A handful, though, said it pointed to the need for ethics reform.
“I think our ethics laws have been proven to be completely useless,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who has filed several ethics bills this year.
“The governor's chef was our one-man ethics department,” Petersen said, referring to the executive mansion chef who appears to have brought federal attention to the gift scandal after he was charged with stealing food from the Executive Mansion.
Petersen said the indictment breaks “new ground” for Virginia. He called it “devastating” and said it must lead to major changes and eventually prove to be a turning point in Virginia history.
“We've had wars in this state, we've had insurrection in this state,” he said. “We've never had a governor indicted for corruption.”
Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535. Fain can be reached by phone at 757-503-1759.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun