They were once friends, or at least friendly. Both were self-made men who'd soared far past their working-class background. One was a rising star of the Republican Party and potential vice-presidential pick. The other, a multimillionaire entrepreneur who owned a private jet.
They were once friends, or at least friendly. Both were self-made men who’d soared far past their working-class background. One was a rising star of the Republican Party and potential vice-presidential pick. The other, a multimillionaire entrepreneur who owned a private jet.
They were close in age, and both had big families. As they got to know each other, they even learned they had both honeymooned in Bar Harbor, Maine.
But in federal court Wednesday, that relationship started a dramatic new chapter as businessman Jonnie Williams began testifying as the government’s key witness in the corruption trial for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.
Prosecutors say Williams gave the McDonnells more than $165,000 in secret gifts, cash and loans in exchange for promoting his products. Williams was the CEO of dietary supplements maker Star Scientific Inc. until he stepped down under the cloud of a securities investigation and shareholder lawsuits. His testimony under immunity was set to continue Thursday.
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Williams testified that he sought to cultivate a business relationship with the McDonnells because he believed the governor could influence Virginia’s medical schools to conduct clinical studies of his company’s signature product, Anatabloc. He also said he thought the relationship would give credibility to his claims about Anatabloc’s health benefits.
A prosecutor asked Williams if he gave gifts and loans to the McDonnells because they were friends. He said no.
“This was a business relationship,” he said.
McDonnell has said he considered Williams a personal friend. Whatever relationship they had was torpedoed by the federal investigation that led to the 14-count indictment.
“We had a very positive relationship for three or four years,” McDonnell told The Associated Press in April 2013, while the investigation was underway.
“I admire people who are entrepreneurial, who are finding ways to create opportunities in Virginia and that’s one of the reasons that when I first met him back in ’09 (or) ’10 that we established a friendship,” McDonnell said. “We both had big families. He had four kids, I had five.”
He added: “We had interesting early discussions about the field of health care and about our families.”
Maureen McDonnell once had a home-based business selling vitamins, and Williams said she mentioned that experience when she told him in May 2011 that she could help his company — but that she and her husband needed help with their financial problems. She said she and her husband were discussing filing bankruptcy, but the governor thought it was a bad idea, Williams testified.
He said he ended up writing two checks — $50,000 for an informal, undocumented loan and $15,000 to cover catering expenses for a McDonnell daughter’s wedding. Williams said that before delivering the checks, he called the governor to make sure he knew about them.
“He’s the breadwinner in his house,” Williams said. “I’m not writing his wife checks without him knowing about it.”
He said Bob McDonnell thanked him.
A month earlier, Williams testified, he took Maureen McDonnell and her chief of staff on a Manhattan shopping spree. He said Maureen McDonnell had sought his help buying a dress for her husband’s 2010 inauguration but told him she would “take a rain check” after one of Bob McDonnell’s top aides nixed the idea.
“She wasn’t happy about it,” Williams said.
He said the first lady contacted him in April 2011 and said, “We can go shopping now.” She needed two dresses — one for her wedding anniversary, another for her daughter’s wedding.
He took her to Bergdorf Goodman, Louis Vuitton, and Oscar de la Renta.
“This went on for hours,” Williams said.
The final tab for Maureen McDonnell’s designer clothes and accessories was $20,000, he said.
Williams also testified about his practice of allowing politicians, including McDonnell, to use his private jet. He said the aircraft is a tool for gaining access to politicians.
He said he once allowed McDonnell to use the jet for a trip to California, then took a commercial flight there so he could join him on the return trip to Virginia. Williams said he figured that would give him five or six hours to talk to McDonnell about his product and the need for research studies. He said McDonnell agreed to introduce him to the state secretary of health.
The McDonnells are on trial together, but have their own attorneys. The former governor’s lawyers have said he was an honest public official and the favors he did were what any governor would do for a Virginia-based company.
Maureen McDonnell’s attorneys have said she was smitten with the attention Williams showered on her and “duped” by him into thinking he cared for her. They also say she was not a public official and, therefore, should not be held to the same scrutiny as her husband.
During opening statements Tuesday, defense attorneys said the McDonnells’ marriage was on the rocks, perhaps indicating to jurors that there was no way they could be scheming together if they were hardly talking.
If convicted, the McDonnells could face decades in prison.