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Final arguments unfold at ex-governor's trial

August 29, 2014
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife took bribes and used their political muscle to promote a sketchy nutritional supplement because they were in deeply in debt and couldn't refuse the more than $165,000 in loans and gifts, including designer dresses and a Rolex watch, prosecutors said Friday.

Defense attorneys contended in their closing arguments that McDonnell, once a rising star in the Republican party, made a bad decision but never gave any special treatment to former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. They said Maureen McDonnell's acceptance of the gifts may have been "tacky," but it was not illegal because she was not a public official. The couple also couldn't have conspired because their marriage was so strained they were hardly talking.

"You're being asked to render a legal verdict, not a moral verdict," said Bob McDonnell's lawyer, Henry Asbill. "Jonnie didn't get anything. Nothing. This case is all 'quid,' no 'quo.'"

The McDonnells were charged in a 14-count indictment that accused them of conspiracy, bribery and filling out false loan applications. Maureen McDonnell also faces an obstruction charge. If convicted, they could face decades in prison.

McDonnell, once considered a possible running mate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was swept into office in a landslide five years ago. He is also a former attorney general and state legislator.

He earlier testified in his own defense, saying the couple did nothing illegal and extended courtesies to Williams like any other elected official would.

The five-week, soap opera-like trial aired the McDonnells' dirty laundry with testimony about the former first couple's fights, crumbling marriage and financial troubles.

The McDonnells were tried together, but had their own attorneys present their case to jurors, who were expected to begin deliberations Tuesday.

A lawyer for Maureen McDonnell, attorney William Burck, said the McDonnells' broken marriage showed she was operating independently of her husband in her dealings with Williams. She "was gaga for Jonnie" and he capitalized on her vulnerability, Burck said.

"He made her believe he cared about her," he said. "The only thing he cared about was promoting his own interests."

Burck also challenged the credibility of Williams, who testified under an immunity deal that bars his prosecution not only for his dealings with the McDonnells but also possible securities fraud violations.

"A case built on the word of Jonnie Williams is the definition of reasonable doubt," he said.

Prosecutor David Harbach said the McDonnells spoke several times in favor of the tobacco-based anti-inflammatory known as Anatabloc, and held a launch party for it at the governor's mansion. The former first couple used their influence anyway they could — it didn't matter that McDonnell failed to get the state-backed government research Williams needed to help legitimize Anatabloc, Harbach said.

"He was on the Jonnie Williams gravy train, and he and Jonnie Williams had a deal: Do what you can when opportunities arise and I'll keep paying," Harbach said.

Harbach urged jurors to focus on two questions: Why did Williams shower the McDonnells with gifts and cash, and why did the McDonnells accept?

The answer, he said, was the McDonnells were badly in debt, and Williams was willing to provide help if they would promote his tobacco-based supplement, Anatabloc.

"That is bribery. That is corruption ... the real thing," Harbach said.

Harbach questioned McDonnell's assertion that he knew nothing about an April 2011 shopping spree in New York City in which Williams spent nearly $20,000 on designer dresses and accessories for Maureen McDonnell to wear at her daughter's wedding.

The former governor wasn't on the shopping spree, but did sit next to Williams later that day at an event.

"Folks, how do you miss that?" Harbach said to the jury. "You decide who to believe."

Williams, the prosecution's star witness, testified that he spent lavishly on the McDonnells, including a $6,500 Rolex, only to secure their support for Anatabloc.

He also spent $15,000 on catering for a McDonnell daughter's wedding and about $3,200 on golf outings for Bob McDonnell and his sons. Williams treated the McDonnells to a family vacation that included use of his Ferrari and issued three loans: $50,000 to Maureen McDonnell, which she used to pay credit cards bills and buy Star Scientific stock, and two checks totaling $70,000 to MoBo Realty, the money-losing Virginia Beach vacation rental house owned by Bob McDonnell and his sister.

Prosecutors said a product launch event at the governor's mansion was outside the norm of usual courtesies. McDonnell took time to speak briefly, even though he was dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake and an approaching hurricane.

"Jonnie Williams was on cloud nine," Harbach said. "This is exactly what he wanted. This is exactly what he was paying for."

Star Scientific, which has since changed its name to Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals and moved its headquarters to Sarasota, Florida, said earlier this month it is voluntarily stopping sales of Anatabloc and another supplement called CigRx while it sorts out issues with the Food and Drug Administration.

 
 

 

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