Former Virginia Gov McDonnell and Wife Indicted on Multiple Felony Counts in Gifts Scandal
A former rising star of the Republican party was charged on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy on Tuesday, in a dramatic escalation of a long-running corruption scandal in which his family was showered with gifts and loans by a struggling local tobacco entrepreneur.
Bob McDonnell and his wife insist they gave no political favours to Jonnie Williams, who paid for their daughter's wedding, a Rolex watch, a Louis Vuitton handbag, Oscar de la Renta dresses and loaned them a jet, Ferrari, beach home and $120,000 in cash.
But less than two weeks after leaving the governor's mansion in Richmond, the couple face one of the biggest corruption trials in recent political history after federal prosecutors alleged they promoted Williams' business, Star Scientific, in direct return for the gifts.
Bob and Maureen McDonnell were charged on 13 counts each by federal prosecutors on Tuesday after a grand jury heard allegations they asked Williams to bankroll their lavish lifestyle after running into real estate difficulties.
Twelve of the counts are punishable by up to 20 years in prison each, and two are punishable up to 30 years. Fines can range from $250,000 to $1m.
Both have firmly denied wrongdoing, and Bob McDonnell repaid thousands to Williams while he was still in office. Limited to a single term by state law, McDonnell left the executive mansion earlier this month in disgrace, his approval numbers low and his political future in tatters.
At one time, McDonnell was seen as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney. He delivered the 2010 Republican response to the State of the Union address, and became chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2011.
The 43-page indictment portrays a cozy relationship between the McDonnells and Williams that began before he took office, with many of their interactions initiated by Maureen McDonnell.
“I need to talk to you about inaugural clothing budget,” reads one email from Maureen McDonnell to Williams in 2009. “I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I'm charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, I need to get this done.”
The indictment alleges that Maureen McDonnell cut a deal with Williams about two years later: if he bought her dresses and accessories for her daughter's wedding and the couple's anniversary, she would make sure he had a prime seat next to her husband at a political event in New York City.
Williams paid her nearly $20,000 tab at stores such as Oscar de la Renta and Louis Vuitton, the indictment says. As promised, Williams was seated next to the governor at the event on 13 April, 2011.
The indictment also details a succession of gifts, ranging from golf trips to iPhones, which followed after the governor allegedly said he would put Williams in contact with Virginia's secretary of health and spoke in support of Star Scientific at a doctors' conference.
Williams, a former cigarette manufacturer, was struggling to promote the health-giving effects of an ingredient derived from tobacco plants, and has since left Star.
Prosecutors allege that for two years the McDonnells concealed a “scheme to use Robert McDonnell's position as governor of Virginia to enrich the defendants and their family members by soliciting and obtaining payments, loans, gifts and other things of value from JW and Star Scientific in exchange for ... performing official actions ... to legitimise, promote and obtain research studies for Star Scientific's products".
In a statement, McDonnell insisted he broke no laws by accepting the gifts and attacked prosectors for “unjust overreach of the federal government”.
“I deeply regret accepting legal gifts and loans from Mr Williams, all of which have been repaid with interest, and I have apologised for my poor judgment for which I take full responsibility,” he said.
“However, I repeat emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal generosity and friendship. I never promised – and Mr Williams and his company never received – any government benefit of any kind from me or my administration.”
The scandal first came to light in the Washington Post after a chef at the governor's mansion was accused of stealing food and turned on the couple by revealing how Williams had paid for much of their daughter's wedding.
The Associated Press contributed to this report