The corruption trial of former VA Governor Robert McDonnell and wife Maureen McDonald concluded 2 weeks of testimony with no smoking gun but plenty of evidence to suggest that both McDonnells will have an uphill battle to secure an acquittal. The defense mainly consists of several strategies. They started in opening with the unexpected bombshell revelation that Maureen McDonnell was infatuated with Jonnie Williams and the McDonnell marriage was on the rocks and barely on speaking terms. The other defenses consist of the assertion that Jonnie Williams was a personal friend and nothing “official” was offered or given to Williams.
Most of the defense assertions have been picked apart by the prosecution which has put on a methodical case of witnesses who worked for the former Governor, family, family friends and of course, businessman Jonnie R. Williams and Star Scientific’s Chairman of the Board. A witness testified this week that the McDonnells appeared to be very much in love. One said Bob McDonnell kissed his wife on the cheek regularly in public. One witness testified that Bob McDonnell worshipped the ground his wife walked on. The defense assertion that there was a romantic relationship or infatuation between Mrs. McDonnell and Williams was further blasted away by the 1200 texts and Emails which never mentioned anything remotely romantic between the two of them. Bob McDonnell’s team in “throwing his wife under the bus” in an attempt to win an acquittal, may have made a tactical mistake. They used it to diffuse the conspiracy charge.
Witnesses who knew the McDonnells for years testified that they never heard either Bob McDonnell or Maureen refer to Williams as a family friend—until the investigation started. The assertion that Jonnie Williams was a personal friend is turning out to also sound like a sham. And the testimony showed that when the Governor knew there might be an investigation, he requested a definition of “personal friend” from a staffer. There is no legal definition. He was told a good starting point would be people who knew him before he became Virginia Attorney General.
One other McDonnell defense is that nothing was done for Jonnie Williams in exchange for any of the gifts. It was political business as usual. McDonnell was merely trying to get business for the Commonwealth. However, timing is everything. And 2 months after Williams paid $15,000 for the McDonnell daughter’s wedding, after meeting her for 10 minutes, the 2011 launch of his company and dietary product occurred at the Governor’s mansion. And in 2012 immediately after the former Governor requested a loan from Williams, Jonnie Williams and many of his guests were added to the guest list for a health care meeting at the Governor’s mansion.
Then the former Governor and his wife attempted to hide certain gifts. An attempt to hide the gifts may show they probably thought something was improper or illegal about them. Loans from Williams were disguised and indicated on the former Governor’s public disclosure form as loan for someone for “medical services” and for “health care”. And Mrs. McDonnell sold shares of stock of Star Scientific on the last day of 2011 to avoid having to report it. But she requested that her stock broker re-purchase the stock immediately in 2012.
The assertion that Jonnie Williams was a personal friend is turning out to also sound like a sham. Witnesses who knew the couple for a long time never heard them refer to Williams as a friend. And the testimony showed that when the Governor knew there might be an investigation, he requested a definition of “personal friend” from a staffer. There is no legal definition. He was told a good starting point would be people who knew him before he became Virginia Attorney General.
The trial is expected to last several more weeks. And the defense has said it will call Bob McDonnell to testify. He will need to give the performance of a lifetime to overcome all of the evidence that has been presented by the prosecution.
Virginia jurors are known for being very conservative. The trial which is playing out like a soap opera or made for TV movie and making a mockery of VA is not likely sitting well the jurors. The trial is showing that the entire McDonnell family appeared to have a sense of entitlement to money and gifts. Even Jon Stewart weighed in using Virginia’s slogan—saying “Virginia is for lovers—of money.”
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a practicing trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. As a former prosecutor, she tried murders, narcotics, sex offense and economic crimes. She founded LegalSpeaks blog in 2009. She also contributes articles to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.