Defense lawyers weigh in on McDonnell case

McDonnell press conference

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY/AP) – Former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife will be in court this Friday to face federal corruption charges.

The couple wanted a delay, but the Judge said the case will move forward on Friday. McDonnell becomes the first Virginia Governor ever to be indicted for conduct in office.

The 14-count indictment released Tuesday alleges McDonnell schemed to use his official position as Governor to enrich his family and himself by soliciting Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams.

Document: McDonnell Indictment

On December 10, during WAVY.com’s exit interview with the former governor, WAVY’s Andy Fox asked McDonnell if he ever gave Williams or his pharmaceutical company Star Scientific ever received preferential treatment. “No,” he replied.

Federal Prosecutors disagree. The indictment claims Williams gave the McDonnells financial payments, loans, and gifts. In return, McDonnell gave Williams personal access, arranged meetings, hosted events at the Governor’s Mansion, and encouraged research at Universities for Williams’ health supplements.

McDonnell must get past the alleged quid-pro-quo in order to win, which will be his challenge.  Defense Attorney James Broccoletti says McDonnell must convince a jury that “he never had the intent to use his position in public office to benefit Mr. William’s because nothing ever did benefit Mr. Williams.”

If there’s any good news for McDonnell, it’s that indictments do not mean guilt, and a former federal prosecutor thinks the case against McDonnell is weak.

Pete White, who is now a partner with Schulte, Roth, and Zabel, told WAVY.com by phone, “There was no official act that was done in that common sense way other than hosting an event or being generally supportive of the business.”

The Governor’s wife, Maureen, clearly gives the motive for accepting money and gifts. Mrs. McDonnell sent this email to a senior McDonnell staffer demanding an inaugural clothing budget.

“I need to talk to you about an Inaugural clothing budget,” she wrote in the email. “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, and I need to get this done.”

White made this observation: “The other thing that is very unusual about this case is 90 percent or so of the allegations of improper gifts and so on deal with someone who is not the elected official.”

The details are staggering: the free plane rides, the gifts, the loans to ease the McDonnells’ financial problems, the dresses, the Rolex watch, the stock in the company that was traded before the end of the year so it did not show up on any disclosure reports, and the McDonnell sons expecting Williams to pay their greens fees at a swanky Country Club.

The indictment is full of examples that could be construed to show a family seeking entitlement, and all of it could put the McDonnells in federal prison.

On December 10, WAVY.com asked McDonnell about his relationship with Star Scientific’s Jonnie Williams.

“People are entitled to equal access to government, whether Star Scientific or anyone else,” McDonnell said.

On Tuesday night, just hours after the indictment was released, McDonnell, with his wife by his side, reiterated he gave Williams nothing: ” … that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed to be his personal friendship and his generosity.”

Prosecutors will likely put Williams on the stand, and he’s likely to say, of course, he expected something.

“It is fairly obvious there was going to be a quid-pro-quo,” said Defense attorney Sonny Stallings. “Williams supplied the cash, and they were going to supply the influence of the Governor’s office for his product.”

McDonnell’s biggest challenge might be beating the Hobbs Act of 1951: “the Government need only show that a public official has obtained a payment to which he was not entitled, knowing that the payment was made in return for official acts.”

Stallings adds, “Bob McDonnell had to have known something was expected back, and that goes to the root of the Hobbs Act.”

Broccoletti says McDonnell has a tough challenge, based on the evidence in the indictment.

“He needs to be able to weave that into the theory of the defense,” Broccoletti said. “That there was no quid-pro-quo. There was no arrangement, no agreement. That in the end, these were just independent acts of some friendship that existed.”

That friendship is no more, and that creates more problems for the McDonnells.

Stallings notes, “Jonnie Williams is going to be the star witness. They are going to have to make him out to be a bad guy, but he sure wasn’t a bad guy when he was lavishing these gifts upon them.”

The McDonnells are scheduled to be in court Friday. Part of the case against them is they tried to conceal their relationship with Jonnie Williams, misled government investigators, and that McDonnell himself did not declare the loans Williams gave him while trying to get other loans.

Prosecutors will point out this is not how a man acts who claims to have done nothing wrong.

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