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McDonnell trial: Ex-CEO takes stand as key witness

Thursday, July 31, 2014

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS -

RICHMOND — Curing his wife’s thyroid disease. Connections in the high-end fashion world. Learjet flights for politicians.

Those were topics of testimony Wednesday from Jonnie Williams, the government’s key witness who took center stage under the cloak of immunity in the corruption trial for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. Prosecutors say the McDonnells took more than $165,000 in secret gifts, cash and loans in exchange for promoting Star Scientific Inc., a company Williams headed until he stepped down under the cloud of a securities investigation and shareholder lawsuits.

Williams, a colorful car salesman-turned-entrepreneur, talked about his business acumen, curing his wife’s pre-cancerous disease by dosing her with the main ingredient in his company’s signature product, Anatabloc, and knowing people close to famed designer Oscar de la Renta.

He said Maureen McDonnell asked him for help getting a gown for her husband’s 2010 inauguration but said she would take a “rain check” after an aide to her husband nixed the idea.

In April 2011, Williams said Maureen told him he could buy her a dress.

He took her on a Manhattan luxury clothes shopping spree at Bergdorf Goodman, Louis Vuitton and Oscar de la Renta.

“This went on for hours,” Williams said.

Accompanying them was Mary Shea Sutherland, Maureen’s then-chief of staff. Since Maureen was taking so long trying on dresses, Williams told Sutherland she may as well try on one. He bought her one, too.

The bills for Maureen’s high-end dresses and accessories were $20,000, Williams said. When asked about Maureen’s demeanor during the shopping trip, Williams said: “She was happy.”

A month later, Williams said, the former first lady summoned her to the governor’s mansion and told him about the couple’s financial problems.

“They were discussing filing bankruptcy,” Williams said. “He thought it was bad idea.”

He said Maureen McDonnell, who once had a home-based business selling vitamins, told Williams she could help with his enterprise. She said the governor had given her the OK, “but you need to help me with this financial situation,” Williams said.

He testified that 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.

Williams said he wrote the checks because he needed the governor’s help obtaining research studies on his product at state medical schools.

“This was a business relationship,” he said.

He also testified about loaning his jet to politicians.

“If you are a Virginia company, you want to make sure you have access to those people. And the airplane accomplishes that,” he said.

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 showed her with 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.

Williams, who is in his late 50s, stepped down as CEO of Star Scientific Inc. in late 2013 as the company faced a federal securities probe and shareholder lawsuits alleging trumped up claims for Anatabloc. The McDonnells are accused of using the governor’s office and his connections to promote Anatabloc.

If convicted, the McDonnells could face decades in prison.

Attorneys for the McDonnells have questioned Williams’ character and say he has changed his story in order to receive immunity from prosecutors. A defense attorney said Williams may have illegally sold $10 million worth of shares to a friend.

Williams’ testimony was scheduled to continue Thursday.

 

 
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