RICHMOND, Va. — In his final moments under defense questioning Friday, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell denied he had corrupted his office while saying any blame for his troubles should be put on him, not his wife, who has been pilloried by his defense team for the couple’s relationship with a wealthy donor who showered them with gifts.
“I spent 38 years in public service,” said McDonnell, choking up at the end of the fourth week of his trial on public-corruption charges. “I would not trade that for a golf match or a dinner with anybody.” He said he “knows in my heart” he is innocent of the charges against him that, were he found guilty, would likely to send the former star of the Republican Party to prison.
McDonnell said that despite a defense case centered on his wife’s relationship with a Virginia businessman, Jonnie Williams: “I hold myself accountable for the reasons we are here.”
McDonnell is expected to face questioning Monday from lawyers for his wife, Maureen. McDonnell and his wife are charged with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts, trips and loans from Williams in exchange for promoting his company’s products, particularly the tobacco-derived anti-inflammatory Anatabloc.
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Friday began where the 4-week-old corruption trial began, with the memory of the February 2013 confrontation between Maureen McDonnell and the Virginia State Police, who had been working the case of a chef accused of stealing food from the governor’s mansion. That investigation eventually turned prosecutors on to a more tantalizing target: the relationship between the McDonnells and Williams, who showered the family with gifts for nearly two years.
Prosecutors say McDonnell gave the businessman special access to government and other privileges in exchange for loans, gifts, golf clubs and other largesse.
McDonnell said that when he learned the police had come to interview his wife not about the rogue chef but about Williams: “I was darn angry.”
In testimony Friday, he conceded he made several changes to loan applications for the refinancing of his various homes to belatedly disclose loans from Williams, something prosecutors have seized on. He explained the late disclosure by saying he had not had time to go over the documents and add a variety of assets and liabilities, including $70,000 in loans from Williams to help shore up sinking real estate in Virginia Beach.
Williams’ company, Star Scientific, had been under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible security violations when federal prosecutors granted Williams immunity from those charges in exchange for his cooperation with the McDonnell inquiry. Williams has testified he was not friends with the McDonnells and that he spent lavishly on them and their children solely to buy their influence as he sought state-backed research for Anatabloc.
“I misjudged Jonnie Williams,” McDonnell said. “I thought he was a true friend. I had no idea that he would come into federal court and make false statements against me to save himself.”
McDonnell’s testimony Friday was a contrast to the two previous days, during which he described in detail the unraveling of his marriage, as part of the defense strategy to demonstrate that he and his wife were too estranged to be able to conspire to provide official favors in exchange for gifts from Williams.
Earlier tales of late-night fights and romantic disappointment were replaced by a detailed examination of the fine points of a margin loan involving stocks — one that McDonnell seemed not to understand and ultimately rejected — and the more traditional loan that was ultimately used to create cash flow for the beach homes.
McDonnell has repeatedly denied that while governor he provided favors to Williams. But Friday he testified that in a meeting on March 21, 2012, with two top administration health-care officials, he suggested they contact Williams’ company.
The former governor told the court he was on a daily regimen of Anatabloc. “I told them it was having a positive effect on me,” McDonnell testified. “I might have said, ‘You might want to reach out to them.’ ”
He also detailed how he aggressively pursued two loans from Williams for beach properties purchased at the height of the housing bubble in the mid-2000s, that were managed by a joint corporation formed by McDonnell and his sister, also named Maureen. The homes were losing money in 2012, thanks to a soft rental market that did not cover the mortgage or their upkeep, and were operating with at least a $50,000-a-year shortfall. “Borrowing money was the way to go, we could save our cash,” McDonnell testified.
The idea to ask Williams came from McDonnell’s wife, he testified, although he actively negotiated possible terms in early 2012. Ultimately, McDonnell and Williams agreed on a $50,000 loan at 2 percent interest. Later, McDonnell texted Williams for $20,000 more in loans for the beach properties.
“My administration hadn’t done anything for him,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell also said the loans were not to him personally but rather to his real-estate partnership.
Also Friday, legal definitions, such as “family” and “personal friend,” were explored. On a Virginia statement of financial interests of officials and their immediate family, for example, McDonnell didn’t disclose that the $15,000 catering bill for his daughter’s wedding was paid by Williams.
“My daughter wouldn’t have been a member of my immediate family because she wasn’t living with me,” McDonnell told the court.
Judge James Spencer ended the day a bit early Friday, imploring the exasperated-looking jurors to hang in there. “You’re all making a tremendous sacrifice,” he said. “Believe me, Sunday I’ll be in church, and your names will be on my lips.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.