In the conspiracy corruption trial of Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, gifts were plentiful from businessman Jonnie R. Williams to former VA Governor Bob McDonnell, his wife and family. Conspiracy requires 2 or more persons acting together. That would be Maureen and Bob McDonnell. If you listen to the defense attorney’s opening, they were hardly speaking to be able to conspire together. The missing link that the prosecution must show is the quid pro quo which is that McDonnell, as a part of his official duties, planned future official acts for Williams’ dietary supplement business. Gifts by themselves are not enough for a conviction. And that’s why the McDonnell lawyers have tried to portray Jonnie Williams as a friend which he completely denied. Businessman Jonnie Williams knew the rules of how to pay to play. The prosecution must show that Williams was not a friend but a businessman for whom the former Governor promised official acts on his behalf.
A previous case rested on the friend analogy in the corruption trial of former Clinton appointee Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. In 1998, Mike Espy was charged with over 30 counts in a corruption case for receiving $35,000 gifts, a paltry amount by comparison to McDonnell. Espy was charged with accepting gifts such as Super Bowl tickets, Waterford crystal, plane rides and a $1200 scholarship to business school for his then girlfriend from companies he was charged with regulating such as Tyson Food. Espy’s defense was these were his friends and he did nothing wrong or in exchange for the gifts. A jury acquitted him of all charges after a 7 week trial.
In Espy’s case, it was proven that he did not do anything in exchange for the gifts in his official status as Secretary of Agriculture. In these corruption gift cases, the quid pro quo does not need to be equal. And even if Williams had only been promised future acts, that would still be enough for a conviction. In the McDonnell case, it is clear that Jonnie Williams knew the rules of the pay to play game. What the prosecution must convince the jury is that former Governor McDonnell provided or promised to provide official government assistance to help Williams’ dietary business.
In some government corruption gift cases, it is easier to find the missing link—as in former Prince Georges County Executive Jack Johnson was taped asking for money to do business with contractors in the county. And his wife coming out of the house with money stuffed in her bra was helpful. The missing link of official service by McDonnell was testified to by Jonnie Williams. One day after allowing the McDonnell family to stay at his lakefront property and drive a Ferrari, Williams received a telephone call for a meeting with a VA health department official at the Governor’s mansion. Maureen McDonnell, according to Williams, also arranged for representatives of the Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia to meet at the Governor’s mansion for lunch for Williams to pitch his product. Williams says he did not believe he would have received help without the gifts. And if they were not friends, as Williams states, then the clear implication is it was a mutual business arrangement. While the former VA Governor is trying to paint his wife as being infatuated with Williams and that he took no part in conspiring with her, Bob McDonnell certainly had no problem with directly asking Williams for tens of thousands of dollars in loans.
With a mostly conservative VA jury, the missing link, of Bob McDonnell’s official acts in exchange for the gifts, may be easier to find.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a practicing trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor who has tried over a hundred cases in local, state and federal courts across the country.