Former Virginia Governor Robert (“Bob”) McDonnell and his wife Maureen’s criminal trial on federal corruption charges are expected to start on Monday, July 28 with the former governor likely learning from a defense used successfully by Maryland Senator Ulysses Currie, also accused but acquitted of federal corruption charges. McDonnell and his wife are accused of a conspiracy of taking gifts consisting of loans, Rolex watches, expensive shopping trips to New York, payment for their daughter’s wedding catering, golf outings and others from business man Jonnie Williams, Sr. and CEO of Star Scientific in exchange for the former governor providing official acts to promote the business man’s dietary supplement company.
Former Governor McDonnell was well liked by Virginia voters before the time of the investigation and his indictment, was expected to be a rising star in the Republican party. McDonnell’s defense team of lawyers is likely to make the point of the former governor’s likeability a key factor in the trial by calling at least 10 key character witnesses on his behalf.
A few years ago, in 2011, Maryland State Senator Ulysses Currie, who had served since 1986 as a Maryland law maker, was charged with conspiracy along with two business men for receiving over a quarter of a million dollars in 5 years from grocery store, Shoppers Food Warehouse, without disclosing it on his ethics form and then acting on Shopper’s legislative requests in his official capacity. Like Currie, McDonnell also failed to disclose that he received bank loans from Jonnie Williams. Like the expected defense of McDonnell, Currie’s defense elicited the testimony of many prominent Maryland legislators to describe his character to the jury. Some who testified were now Democratic nominee for MD Governor Anthony Brown who described Currie as “a man of strong character”, Maryland Congressman and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer who described Currie as a “decent, honest, person of integrity”, attorney and former Maryland politician Timothy Maloney, clergy and others. The defense worked as Currie was acquitted of all charges and is still serving in the Maryland legislature. The defense used his likeability as one major factor to procure his acquittal. McDonnell’s defense team has the same opportunity.
By all accounts, it seems as if Senator Currie’s charges made for a stronger case than former Governor McDonnell’s case. Currie was intricately linked to the food chain company for which he obtained money and then made legislative appeals on their behalf, all without disclosing the fact. McDonnell’s case rests entirely on the testimony and believability of businessman Jonnie Williams, Sr. who received full immunity for his testimony. And while there will be many documents and other witnesses, the McDonnell prosecution rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Williams who will receive no jail time or conviction for his part. Currie did not testify in his case and it may be doubtful if Bob McDonnell will testify.
Bob McDonnell is betting on his character and good will to Virginians as a factor to enhance a non-guilty verdict. On the other hand, Virginia jurors are not known for being favorable to the defense. But the prosecution’s star witness, Williams, has a complicated past that will also be a factor. The defense will challenge the jury on whether to believe a business man with perhaps a jaded past to that of Bob McDonnell.
The defense will also be using another tactic used in the Currie trial. The defense team will likely try to explain that there were no “official” acts performed in exchange for the receipt of the gifts. McDonnell’s defense team in the past has said it was political business as usual and nothing illegal about his acts. And the Maryland jury in Currie’s trial said at the conclusion that while it wasn’t ethical, it didn’t rise to the level of a federal crime,
At the end of the McDonnells’ trial, the prosecution must convince the jury beyond a reasonable ground that former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife committed acts with a criminal intent. A Maryland jury failed to convict in the case of Maryland state law maker Senator Ulysses Currie. Currie served over 25 years in the Maryland legislature at the time of his trial. McDonnell served 37 years in politics. Whether a jury will believe the prosecution’s case and its key witness over McDonnell’s character is the question. And McDonnell’s legal team is trying to take a page out of Currie’s trial strategy and win the same results for their clients.