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Rolex passed among jurors at trial
Gift given to governor now is evidence
Friday, August 1, 2014
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS -
RICHMOND — The requests for lavish gifts were frequent. Jonnie Williams — the star witness in a corruption trial against the former Virginia governor and his wife — was being asked for everything from a joy ride in his Ferrari to stock in the company he led.
The former Star Scientific CEO testified Thursday that he complied with some requests from the first family — while turning down others — because he hoped his company would gain credibility through an association with the governor’s office. He tried to keep the arrangement quiet — something the governor agreed would be a good idea, Williams testified.
“I didn’t want anyone to know I was helping the governor financially with his problems while he was helping my company,” Williams said.
During his testimony, Williams detailed a pattern of requests for gifts by former first lady Maureen McDonnell and a loan that former Gov. Bob McDonnell asked for. He said his cozy relationship with the McDonnells was borne of poor business decisions, not out of friendship.
“The McDonnells are not my personal friends,” Williams said. “I thought it was good for my company.”
The former first couple appeared calm during the hearing, with Bob McDonnell studiously taking notes but also softly laughing at times during lighter moments in Williams’ testimony.
Under questioning from prosecutors, Williams also denied that he had a romantic relationship with Maureen McDonnell. Her attorney, William Burck, said during opening arguments on Tuesday that Maureen McDonnell developed a “crush” on Williams because she was in a broken marriage, though Burck didn’t suggest a physical relationship.
Among the gifts from Williams was a Rolex watch given to Bob McDonnell that cost more than $6,000.
“It was a bad decision on my part to buy that watch when she asked for it,” Williams said. “I shouldn’t have had to buy things like that to get the help I needed.”
On Thursday, the watch was passed to the jury, where each juror briefly inspected it as a silent courtroom watched.
The watch is an important piece of evidence because it represents a tangible chunk of the more than $165,000 in secret gifts and loans prosecutors say Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, received from Williams. Other monetary gifts and loans can’t be presented in court for jurors to hold, although many documents and photos have been shown on courtroom video screens.
Among them are photos of Bob McDonnell behind the wheel of Williams’ Ferrari during a free vacation at the businessman’s lake house. Williams testified that Maureen McDonnell, who also is charged in the 14-count indictment, was admiring the car shortly before the vacation and asked if any like it were available at the lake house. Williams said no.
“She said, ‘It would be nice. We never get to do things like this,”’ Williams testified.
He said he had the car delivered.
Bobby McDonnell, one of the former first couple’s five children, testified Wednesday that he and his siblings goaded their father into driving the Ferrari. Bob McDonnell had not driven himself anywhere since becoming governor and the kids thought it would be amusing, the 22-year-old son said.
On the stand Thursday, Williams said Maureen McDonnell also made a comment about admiring his Rolex. He said he took it off and handed it to her for a closer look.
“She said, ‘I’d really like to get one of these for the governor,”’ Williams testified.
He said he asked if she wanted him to buy one and she replied: “Yes, that would be nice.”
Maureen McDonnell gave the watch to her husband as a Christmas present. It is engraved “Robert F. McDonnell, 71st Governor of Virginia.”
While Williams was generous with some gifts, he said he rebuffed other requests by Maureen McDonnell because he thought they were too visible. He said one of the McDonnells’ daughters called him at her mother’s direction, saying Williams should buy the daughter a car. He also said that Maureen McDonnell asked Williams to sell his luxury SUV to her at a discount so she could give it to one of her sons.
Williams said Maureen also asked Williams to purchase money-losing Virginia Beach rental properties that the McDonnells owned — another request he rejected.
Williams testified that he and Bob McDonnell discussed a possible secret transfer of Star Scientific stock to the governor so he could borrow money against it to ease money problems he was having with real estate investments. Williams said he wanted to keep the deal just between the two of them because he thought it was wrong.
“It could be violating laws. I don’t know that. It could be,” he said.
Williams said he ultimately concluded he couldn’t transfer the stock without disclosing it to federal regulators. According to prosecutors, Williams ended up making a $50,000 loan instead.
He said that when he told McDonnell he wanted to keep the deal secret, the governor “said that was fine with him.”