RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A former Virginia health official and an aide who dispensed legal and policy advice to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell testified Tuesday in the trial on allegations of corruption within the former first family of Virginia.
Molly Huffstetler was a senior health adviser who reported directly to Dr. Bill Hazel, the state health secretary. During her testimony she said she met with the wealthy nutritional supplements executive who lavished former Gov. Bob McDonnell with gifts and loans, but nothing came of the meeting.
The meeting with McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, and former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams at the governor’s mansion in August 2011 is one of the benefits that prosecutors claim Williams received in exchange for more than $165,000 he spent on the McDonnell family. The McDonnells are charged in a 14-count indictment and could face decades in prison, if convicted.
Huffstetler testified that McDonnell asked that someone from Hazel’s office meet with the first lady and Williams to discuss his company’s signature product, the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc. Huffstetler said she went because Hazel’s two top deputies were busy, adding that she and her colleagues referred to Williams as “tic-tac man” because he left samples of tiny Anatabloc pills at meetings.
She said Williams did almost all of the talking, but never specifically asked for anything. Her notes from the meeting indicated that Williams said a state tobacco commission was going to finance a study of Anatabloc.
The same day, she sent Williams an email thanking him for his time and pledging “to continue to work alongside the first Lady as we identify how best to move forward.”
Bob McDonnell’s attorney, Henry Asbill, asked Huffstetler if she would describe that message as “basically a blow-off email.”
“That’s probably fair,” said Huffstetler, who said she never intended to follow up — and that neither she nor anyone in her office ever did.
She testified it was not unusual for McDonnell to request such meetings. She said she felt no pressure to do anything more for Williams.
The jury also heard from Dr. John Clore, vice president of clinical research at the Medical College of Virginia, about his dealings with Williams, who testified under immunity for the prosecution.
Clore said that in 2011, he received a phone call from Johns Hopkins medical researcher Dr. Paul Ladenson about the potential health benefits of anatabine, the tobacco-derived compound that is the main ingredient in Anatabloc. Clore sent several of his colleagues an email about the call, writing that Williams was a “very good friend” of the governor and that McDonnell wanted to sponsor clinical trials of Anatabloc.
He acknowledged under questioning by the defense that the statements about McDonnell’s support were based solely on what Ladenson told him.
Clore later flew with a University of Virginia medical researcher and others on Williams’ private jet to a meeting in Maryland to discuss Anatabloc, where he was handed a form to apply for funds that would allow him to seek a grant from the tobacco commission for clinical trials. A little more than a week later, at a product launch event at the governor’s mansion, Williams handed him a $25,000 check made out to MCV to begin the process.
“Never happened before in my life,” Clore said when asked how unusual it was to receive planning grants that way. It was one of eight $25,000 checks Williams handed out to researchers at that event, Williams testified previously.
Clore said he was interested in researching Anatabloc because he thought it had potential, but it never went anywhere because the Star subsidiary in charge — Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals — quit communicating.
According to Clore, Bob McDonnell spoke at the product launch event, which prosecutors have also listed as an “official act” the former governor and his wife performed for Williams. Clore said his impression was that it was an official government event.
Ex-McDonnell aide testifies of concerns over Rolex
Bob McDonnell’s former counsel and chief policy adviser, Jasen Eige, was on the stand for much of the afternoon. He testified Tuesday that he and other administration officials worried about the propriety of a product launch event at the governor’s mansion and about a Rolex watch that McDonnell received from his wife through a wealthy benefactor.
Eige said he and other top aides were concerned when they learned about Maureen McDonnell’s plan to host the official launch of Williams’ signature product Anatabloc at the mansion in August 2011.
“We didn’t think that was appropriate use of state property,” Eige said.
He said he thought the event was toned down to just a luncheon so that Williams could distribute planning grant funds to state medical school researchers, which allayed his concerns. The governor’s aides also edited a Star Scientific press release about the event to remove mentions of the governor and first lady, he testified, because they did not want it to look like McDonnell was pitching a particular product — although “there is no bright-line rule in Virginia” prohibiting such an endorsement.
Eige and Tucker Martin, who was McDonnell’s communications director, also aired their concerns about public perception when the then-governor showed up at a meeting wearing the Rolex. McDonnell told them his wife had given it to him for Christmas. Eige said he agreed when Martin told their boss he probably shouldn’t be wearing it. McDonnell said he didn’t think it was real, but Martin said that didn’t matter.
According to Eige, he never saw McDonnell wear the watch again. He only learned later that Williams had paid for it. Williams testified previously that Maureen McDonnell asked him to buy the watch.
Eige also testified about receiving an email from Maureen McDonnell telling him to call Williams because researchers at two Virginia universities weren’t returning their calls after the Star executive doled out $200,000 in planning grants at the launch event. He said he didn’t think it was appropriate for the governor’sstaff to get involved in the issue.
“Frankly, I was kind of hoping it would go away,” he said.
He called Williams’ attorney, former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, and asked him to talk to Williams. Nothing else happened, he said.
Eige also testified that Maureen McDonnell was not happy when staff members decided it was a bad idea for her to accept a designer dress from Williams for the inauguration. Eige said he thought accepting the dress would be inappropriate during a recession, though, he did not see any legal issues with it.
Eige said that after he shared his concerns, he received an email from Maureen McDonnell that read in part, “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!”
Earlier in the day, McDonnell’s former scheduler, Monica Block, testified that Williams planned a New York shopping trip for Maureen, but the former first lady did not talk about him in a romantic way. Block said she rarely scheduled dinners for the McDonnells and that mostly took place on their birthdays.
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