In McDonnell indictment, feds describe Star Scientific’s push for UVA research

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Photo by James Scheuren. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Photo by James Scheuren.

After months of rumors, innuendo, leaks and mea culpas, the other shoe has finally dropped in the ongoing gift scandal surrounding former first couple Bob and Maureen McDonnell. On January 21, 2014, both were named as co-conspirators in a federal indictment that alleges, among other things, that they—separately and together—are guilty of wire fraud, false statements, and “obtaining property under color of official right.” In addition, Maureen McDonnell was charged with a single count of “obstruction of official proceeding.”

The indictment lays out an eye-popping narrative of greed and hubris, with both McDonnells accepting (and in Maureen’s case, apparently demanding) a wide array of goods and services from one Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the former CEO of dietary supplements company Star Scientific, Inc. In return, prosecutors allege, both Bob and Maureen conspired to “legitimize, promote, and obtain research studies” for Star Scientific’s tobacco-derived products (which are not currently approved for use by the the Food and Drug Administration). There’s even some local color in the feds’ case: The indictment details Williams’ efforts to get UVA researchers and administrators to study one of Star Scientific’s products—and his apparent desire to get the governor to influence them.

According to the indictment, the McDonnells’ cozy relationship with Williams began “in or about” March 2009, when then-candidate Bob McDonnell began using Williams’ private jet during his campaign for governor. Despite the hours of free air travel, at this point the two men allegedly “had no personal or professional relationship.”

That would change following McDonnell’s election, when Maureen McDonnell began casting around for ways to obtain a free designer dress for the inauguration. Having discussed her sartorial needs with Williams at a December 2009 political event, the incoming first lady reportedly decided that he should provide her with one. Unfortunately, one of the governor-elect’s senior staffers (identified only as “JE”) strongly opposed this plan, prompting Maureen to fire off a plaintive email.

“I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget,” she wrote. “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.”

Although she eventually agreed not to accept the dress, the indictment claims that she took a “rain check,” and soon thereafter both she and the governor began accepting all manner of gifts from Williams. (Including a no-contract $50,000 “loan,” a silver Rolex inscribed “71st Governor of Virginia,” a nearly $20,000 New York shopping spree at Oscar de la Renta, Louis Vuitton and Bergdorf Goodman, a free stay at Williams’ Smith Mountain Lake vacation home complete with loaner Ferrari, and the infamous $15,000 catered wedding dinner for daughter Cailin, among other things.)

In return, prosecutors allege, the McDonnells introduced Williams to top state officials, held a Star Scientific product launch party at the governor’s mansion, and attended events designed to burnish the company’s image.

In addition, the indictment accuses Maureen McDonnell of lying to investigators about exactly when, and how, her husband first met Williams, and of trying to pass off luxury clothes bought for her by Williams as a loan from his daughter.

The “Giftgate” fallout even touches UVA. According to the indictment, researchers from the University flew by private jet with Virginia’s first lady to a Maryland symposium hosted by Star Scientific in July 2011. It also details a meeting between Williams and “senior UVA administrators” in November of that year to discuss UVA “taking the lead role” in seeking state grants to research Star Scientific’s top product. Bob McDonnell allegedly supported the proposal, but the University eventually declined, as evidenced by a string of correspondence months later.

One e-mail included in the indictment has Maureen McDonnell complaining to a staffer: “Gov wants to know why nothing has developed w studies after [Williams] gave $200,000.”

The reaction by Bob McDonnell to the charges was swift and ferocious. In a hastily arranged television appearance the evening of the indictment, McDonnell insisted that he had been “falsely and wrongfully accused,” and repeatedly claimed, “emphatically, that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams.”

McDonnell’s legal team went even further, fulminating that “the federal government’s decision to use these deceitful tactics in order to prosecute a popular and successful Republican Governor immediately upon his leaving office is disgraceful,” and comparing the justice department to the despotic Roman Emperor Caligula.

If convicted, the former first couple could face up to 30 years in prison.

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