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Ex-Governor McDonnell and Wife Convicted After Corruption Trial

Setembro 4, 2014 - 8:47pm -- WesleyMendes
The 7-man, 5-woman jury returned its findings on the third day of deliberations here in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Both McDonnells, who now face years in prison, were acquitted of lesser charges of making false statements on loan applications, while Ms. McDonnell was convicted on a charge she alone faced, of obstructing a grand jury investigation by trying to make a gift of $20,000 worth of designer dresses and shoes appear to have been a loan. “This is a difficult, disappointing day for the Commonwealth,” said Dana J. Boente, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “When public officials turn to financial gain for official actions, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.” Asked if Mr. McDonnell would appeal, his lawyer, Henry W. Asbill, said, “Of course,” adding that he was “shocked” by the verdict. Defense lawyers claimed that the McDonnells were being targeted by an overzealous Justice Department, which was treating common political courtesies by a public official for a supporter as criminal offenses. Adam Lee, the F.B.I. agent in charge of the Richmond office, offered a different view outside the courthouse on Thursday. “I think this case sends an important message that the F.B.I. will engage, and engage vigorously, to any credible allegation of corruption,” he said. The McDonnells were indicted on a total of 14 counts of conspiracy, bribery, extortion and related charges stemming from what prosecutors said was a scheme to sell the office of governor for $177,000 in gifts and cash from a dietary supplements executive. Mr. McDonnell was limited by law to one term, leaving office in January. While other governors around the country have faced corruption charges in recent years, none of those cases unfolded in the national glare like the McDonnell melodrama, largely because the former governor was a rising Republican figure, whose unexpected defense was that his picture-perfect marriage had, in fact, been Photoshopped. Mr. McDonnell, who carried his wife over the threshold of the Executive Mansion the day of his inauguration, portrayed her in his testimony as a harridan whose yelling left him “spiritually and mentally exhausted,” and who was so cold that she did not reply to an email pleading to save their marriage. The defense used the demeaning portrait to argue that the McDonnells were too estranged to conspire criminally to trade favors with the vitamin executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. Continue reading the main story The jury, which began deliberating at midday Tuesday after hearing from 67 witnesses over five weeks, had the difficult task of deciding whether gifts from Mr. Williams and Mr. McDonnell’s actions on his behalf over two years added up to bribery and extortion. At issue was whether the McDonnells accepted the largess with corrupt intent. They were not forbidden under Virginia ethics laws from taking $120,000 in undocumented loans from Mr. Williams, nor the goodies he bestowed — such as a custom golf bag and Rolex for the governor, Armani dresses for the first lady, and a $15,000 check for their daughter’s wedding at a time the first couple owed $31,000 on their credit cards and were hemorrhaging money on beachfront property. The defense argued that actions Mr. McDonnell took on behalf of Mr. Williams’s company, Star Scientific, the maker of the supplement Anatabloc, were mere political courtesies. The former governor testified that he had given Mr. Williams “the bare, basic, routine access to government and nothing more.” But prosecutors argued that Mr. McDonnell’s actions followed so closely after Mr. Williams’s gifts that they were strong circumstantial evidence of a corrupt bargain. At one point, Mr. McDonnell emailed an aide to see him about “Anatabloc issues” just six minutes after discussing a $50,000 loan with Mr. Williams. The McDonnells were shown to have used Mr. Williams like an A.T.M. In May 2012, Mr. McDonnell texted the executive, suggesting, “per voice mail, would like to see if you could extend another 20k loan.” Mr. Williams replied within minutes: “Done.” The government dismissed the defense strategy of portraying the McDonnell marriage as broken and Ms. McDonnell as a “nutbag” who was smitten with Mr. Williams. The former governor was trying to “throw his wife under the bus,” the prosecutor, Michael S. Dry, said in closing statements. But for the McDonnells, the humiliating portrayal was meant to sow doubt about a criminal bargain by giving jurors an alternate reason for why Ms. McDonnell took Mr. Williams’s gifts. She was “gaga” for the rich executive, her lead lawyer told jurors. They exchanged 1,200 texts and phone calls. Through Mr. Williams, she found emotional solace and a way to spite her penny-pinching husband, her lawyers said. “To Maureen, this was about getting away from Bob,” her lawyer, William A. Burck, told jurors. “You might find the mild obsession with Jonnie a little weird,” he added. “But weird is not a crime.” The government relied heavily on the testimony of Mr. Williams. On the stand his version of conversations he had with the McDonnells seemed to dot the I’s and cross the T’s on the legal definition of a corrupt, quid pro quo deal. He said, for example, that before he handed over checks for $65,000 in 2011, Ms. McDonnell told him, “The governor says it’s O.K. for me to help you, but I need you to help me with this financial situation.” Mr. Williams said he had reached out to the governor to confirm the arrangement because the governor was “the breadwinner” in the family. Mr. McDonnell, he said, thanked him for his help. Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story When Mr. McDonnell took the stand, he denied that interaction and much else in Mr. Williams’s testimony. He said that he had no advance knowledge of a $50,000 check from Mr. Williams to his wife in 2011, and that he was too beaten down by their marital rows to demand she return the money. “I just needed to pick the battles with my wife,” he said wearily on the stand. Mr. McDonnell apologized for bad judgment in accepting Mr. Williams’s cash in loans he negotiated himself a year later, as well as numerous $300 golf rounds for himself and his sons. But he insisted he had not sold his office. “No sir, we do not make decisions based on money,” Mr. McDonnell snapped at one point at a prosecutor during cross-examination. To discredit Mr. Williams, the defense hammered on the fact that he was testifying under a promise that he would not be prosecuted. Defense lawyers portrayed him as a super-salesman who had conned the McDonnells and was now trying to con jurors. Under cross-examination, a defense lawyer allowed Mr. Williams to ramble on without interruption for 45 minutes about his business career, in which he grandiosely claimed that Anatabloc was a medical breakthrough on a par with penicillin. (It has been withdrawn from the market after a Food and Drug Administration warning.) As suggested in their body language at the defense table, where they never interacted, and in their comings and goings from the courthouse, Mr. and Ms. McDonnell now move in separate spheres. He said he was living with a Roman Catholic priest, a frequent supporter in court, for the duration of the trial. Their five a children would hug each parent in the courthouse corridor, or drape arms around their father as he pushed through a scrum of sidewalk TV cameras. Leaving the courthouse Tuesday after deliberations began, Mr. McDonnell said that the past 18 months had been tough on his family, but that he drew strength from his 38 years of marriage and the five children he shared with his wife. “I think we’re stronger than we’ve ever been,” he said.
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