News Column

McDonnell trial: Former governor sees coincidence, not conspiracy in government's case

August 22, 2014

By Travis Fain Tfain@dailypress.Com, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

Aug. 22--RICHMOND -- Former Gov. Bob McDonnell focused today on some of the troubling timing in the government's case against him and and his wife.

In short, McDonnell said they're coincidence, not conspiracy.

He emailed Jonnie R. Williams Sr. about a loan they were negotiating late on Feb. 16, 2012. Shortly after midnight, the governor also emailed Jasen Eige, a close aid and in-house attorney for the governor's office.

"Please see me about Anatabloc issues at VCU and UVA," he wrote. "Thx."

Anatabloc, of course, was the chief product for Star Scientific at the time. Williams, Star's CEO, wanted the state's two main medical universities to study the dietary supplement's primary ingredient, and hopefully confirm health benefits.

Williams was having trouble getting university officials to return his calls, he had told the governor's wife, despite the $175,000 in grants his company had given state researchers during a luncheon months before, which was held at the governor's mansion.

"Please call Jonnie today," the governor's wife had emailed Eige seven days earlier, on February 10. "Gov wants to know why nothing has developed. ... Gov wants to get this going."

McDonnell said Friday that he never OK'd that email. It was an example, he said, of his wife's occasional habit of dropping his name without permission.

Decisions on clinical trials at VCU and U.Va. were between university officials and Star Scientific, McDonnell said today. It seemed like a good idea, though, the former governor said.

Anatabloc's crucial element, anatabine, had been isolated from tobacco plants. If it had the health properties Williams claimed, that could be good for the state's struggling tobacco region.

Irrespective of the $177,000 in loans and gifts Williams gave the McDonnells, by the FBI's count, Anatabloc's success could bring jobs. It was only later that McDonnell learned, he said today, that Star synthesized anatabine out of state instead of drawing it from tobacco leaves.

But if Williams -- a Virginia businessman -- wasn't getting his calls returned after he gave out grants, that wasn't right, the former governor testified.

"He deserved the courtesy of at least a call back," he said.

That's what he was going to tell Eige, McDonnell said, though he didn't remember today whether that conversation actually happened. Late night emails were common for the governor, several former officials have testified, and this was one of several McDonnell sent before or after midnight Feb. 16.

He also wanted to talk with Eige about a deal he was working on with Internet giant Amazon, and an ongoing budget crisis, emails show. This was the middle of the 2012 legislative session, and the state budget was stalled in partisan gridlock.

The governor was going out of town soon and wanted to get several things handled first, he said. That included his conversations with Eige and, separately, the loan he needed to tie down from Williams to help cover shortfalls on rental properties he owned with his youngest sister.

Eige responded to the governor's email promptly.

"Will do," he said about seeing McDonnell the next day. "We need to be careful with this issue."

McDonnell testified today that he didn't know what Eige meant by that. Eige and other close advisers testified earlier in this case that they were nervous about Williams' access to the mansion, and the way Star Scientific worked to show the governor's support for its product.

But they also said McDonnell never asked them to do anything inappropriate. The McDonnell defense alleges that wife Maureen McDonnell, and her chief of staff, were the ones who let Williams invite guests to mansion events and otherwise pushed an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get Anatabloc trials moving.

The February emails weren't the first uncomfortable coincidence for the governor's case, though. In the late summer of 2011 he asked a state health official to attend a meeting between Williams and the first lady.

The request came on a Sunday night, just after McDonnell had driven Williams' Ferrari home from a family vacation at Williams lake house. That's when he emailed his secretary of health because that's when Maureen McDonnell told him about her calendar for the next day, the governor testified today.

He didn't know the status of Williams' hoped-for clinical trials at that point, he said, and he didn't follow up on the meeting. McDonnell simply wanted "someone with appropriate expertise" to sit in on the meeting, instead of Williams meeting solely with his wife and her chief of staff, he said.

Little came of the meeting. Molly Huffstetler, the health official who sat in, testified earlier in this trial that she essentially dismissed Williams' claims and put him out of mind. The governor never followed up, she said.

In March 2012 the governor took a bottle of Anatabloc out during a meeting with two state officials working on a plan to cut state employee insurance costs through a consumer-driven plan overhaul. McDonnell took a pill, and noted that he thought they had health benefits, he said.

One employee testified in this trial that McDonnell asked her during this meeting to meet with Star Scientific about the pills. Another didn't remember it that way. McDonnell said today he wasn't sure.

"I doubt it," he said. "I might have said, 'You might want to reach out to them.'"

One of those employees, Sara Wilson, had already met with a Star Scientific salesman, who showed up at her office unannounced. He pitched the pills, as Williams often did, as an anti-inflammatory that could lower the state's health costs.

Nothing ever came of it, Wilson testified a couple of weeks ago. The governor never followed up or pressured her, she said.

This is a breaking news item, filed during the trial's lunch break. Come back for updates, and keep reading below for coverage of this morning's proceedings.

RICHMOND -- Former Gov. Bob McDonnell testified today that the loans Jonnie R. Williams Sr. gave his company, the vacations he financed and the dirt-cheap work his brother did on the McDonnell family home all seemed fine to him.

He said he didn't know the full extent of his wife's investment in Williams' company, how much contact they had or how thoroughly she was supporting that company, Star Scientific, as the first lady of Virginia.

As his attorney continued to walk him through much of the "quid" in the alleged quid pro quo relationship with Williams, McDonnell explained each one away.

The $70,000 Williams loaned MoBo Real Estate, which the governor co-owned with his sister, at 2 percent interest in 2012? That seemed fine, McDonnell said. Williams was becoming a family friend, and he hadn't asked the governor to do much of anything to promote Anatabloc, Star Scientific's key product.

During loan talks, they didn't discuss Williams' desire to move things along at the University of Virginia or Virginia Commonwealth University, which Williams hoped would study Anatabloc, a major step toward a stamp of approval. McDonnell said he never told Williams he would follow up with university officials on the matter.

They never talked about keeping the loans a secret, either, McDonnell said, despite what Williams testified earlier in this trial.

The trip to Chatham Bars, an exclusive resort on Cape Cod, which Williams paid for and let the governor and his wife invite friends to as well, seemed like a friendly offer. Was it wrong that Williams paid? McDonnell attorney Henry Asbill asked.

"No," McDonnell replied.

The governor said he and his wife paid Williams' brother, Donnie Williams, for work done at their private home in Glenn Allen. He didn't mention that Donnie Williams low-balled the costs, and that payment came only after the investigation that landed the governor and his wife in this courtroom began.

Donnie Williams testified to that effect earlier in this trial, though. He also said the McDonnells offered to pay him several times, but his brother said he'd cover the costs.

As for the $10,000 Williams gave one of McDonnell's daughters and her new husband as a wedding gift, the governor said he didn't learn about that until after the investigation began. He did know about a separate $15,000 wedding gift to another daughter, and testified yesterday that it seemed OK to him.

Time and again this morning, McDonnell said Williams didn't ask him for any official actions as the two discussed loans, or spent time together on expensive trips and dinners. They have not yet discussed, in detail, what the governor's role may have been in a pair of mansion events Williams to which Williams was allowed to invite guests, and which he used to promote Anatabloc.

They have covered the meetings McDonnell set with state officials, which prosecutors allege to be part of the "quo" in a bribery conspiracy. McDonnell has said they were routine meetings, the sort he would arrange for any Virginia businessman.

Former administration officials have backed that up.

This is a breaking news item, filed during the trial's morning break. Come back for updates.

___

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