Jonnie Williams paints McDonnells as broke, willing to make a deal

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by Nick Ochsner, 13News Now & The Associated Press

WVEC.com

Posted on July 31, 2014 at 9:25 AM

Updated Thursday, Jul 31 at 10:05 PM

RICHMOND -- Wealthy businessman Jonnie Williams retook the stand to begin day four of the federal corruption trial of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen.  

Williams, who until recently was the CEO of Star Scientific, is the prosecution’s star witness. He gave the McDonnells more than $150,000 in lavish gifts, trips on his private jet and cash loans that are at the center of the government’s charges against the former first couple.

Williams testified Thursday that he made a mistake when he bought a Rolex watch for the governor at the first lady's request.

He said he thought it was wrong to buy the watch and didn't want people to know.

The watch was passed to the jury, where each juror briefly handled and inspected it. Williams said the watch cost between $6,000 and $7,000.

The watch is an important piece of evidence because it represents a tangible chunk of the more than $165,000 in secret gifts prosecutors say the McDonnells received from Williams. Other monetary gifts and loans can't be presented in court for jurors to hold.

Williams also testified that Maureen McDonnell asked him to buy her daughter a car. He declined and said it was "too much," he testified.

"I thought I had an understanding that she was helping me, but the thought of writing a check to a car dealership for a child I didn't know bothered me," Williams said.
 
Williams said Maureen then asked him if he would sell her one of his Range Rovers at a discounted price so that one of her twin boys could drive it at college. Williams said he told her the car drank too much gas and was too expensive to maintain. Ultimately, Williams never helped the McDonnells buy a car for their children.

Williams spent a lot of time Thursday morning discussing the loan checks he wrote to the McDonnells to help with their rental property in Virginia Beach.
 
"I wasn't sure how deep this hole that he was in on the Sandbridge properties was," Williams explained. He wanted to give him access to his stock certificates so that McDonnell could take out loans against them. Williams said it was a way to keep the governor "out of my cash."
 
The men discussed several ways to transfer the stock, Williams testified, but ultimately decided not to use stock because any transfer would have to be reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
 
Williams told McDonnell that he would like to keep it between the two men with just a handshake. According to Williams, McDonnell agreed and he had his own disclosure issues.
 
"He said that?" asked prosecutor Michael Dry. "He said he had his own disclosure issues," Williams replied.
 
Ultimately Williams wrote a check for $70,000 to the McDonnells but testified Thursday that he was uncomfortable with it.
 
"I think it's a problem. I think it's a problem why I'm loaning him money?" he asked. "I think it's wrong. It could be wrong. I thought I could be violating the law."
 
Williams later testified that he lied on his questionnaire for the shareholder annual report when he checked that he had not given any bribes or kickbacks to government officials.

Williams has been given immunity for his testimony.

As he left court on Thursday, Bob McDonnell said he believes the 'truth will come out by the end of the trial." 

"I've been a prosecutor and a trial lawyer and trials are a long process, so it will just be one day at a time," McDonnell said. 

Wednesday's testimony
On the stand late Wednesday afternoon, Williams told jurors that he first gave the gifts in order to win the favor of Virginia’s sitting governor and, later, as part of an explicit agreement with Maureen McDonnell.

Williams testified that Maureen McDonnell told him the couple was broke and considering filing bankruptcy at a meeting in her office at the governor’s mansion on May 2, 2011. According to Williams, Maureen said she could help him promote his new dietary supplement in exchange for financial help.

“The governor says it’s OK for me to help you, but I need you to help me,” Williams testified Maureen McDonnell said.

Williams said he agreed to loan the couple $50,000 and write a $15,000 check to pay the balance of one of the McDonnells’ daughter’s wedding reception but only after getting the governor’s approval.

“Why did you agree to loan $50,000 to the governor and pay $15,000 for the wedding?” prosecutor Michael Dry asked Williams. “Because I needed help,” Williams said.

Williams’ testimony could be the damning evidence prosecutors need to convince jurors that the McDonnells accepted his cash and gifts in an explicit deal to help promote his company’s dietary supplement, Anatabloc.

Credibility questioned
Already, though, defense attorneys are questioning Williams’ credibility.

In opening statements on Tuesday, Bill Burck, Maureen McDonnell’s lead attorney, said Williams had changed his story nine different times prior to the trial.

Each time, Burck said, his story changed to help the prosecution more.

Williams is testifying in exchange for immunity from both any charges related to the gifts he gave the McDonnells and also in an unrelated securities investigation into a $10 million stock deal.

Defense attorneys are expected to use Williams’ immunity deal to question his credibility on the stand during cross examination.

13News Now legal analyst Kevin Duffan, who worked as a state prosecutor before moving to private practice, said the prosecution’s entire case rests on whether or not jurors believe Jonnie Williams.

“They’ve got other building blocks to sort of support him but, in my opinion, Jonnie Williams is the foundation of the prosecution’s case,” Duffan said. “So, if Jonnie Williams falls so does the entire structure.”

Differing accounts
Already, though, Williams’ testimony has contradicted what members of the McDonnell family have told jurors.

Earlier Wednesday afternoon, one of the McDonnells’ twin sons, Bobby, testified that he had formed a relationship with Jonnie and viewed him as a mentor, saying the pair would golf together and exchange calls and text messages.

He said he received a new set of golf clubs, a Virginia Tech golf bag and two pairs of golf shoes after the pair played golf together.

Before that, in her testimony on Tuesday, Cailin McDonnell Young, one of the McDonnells’ three daughters, said she had received the $15,000 check to pay the balance of her wedding as a gift from Williams after meeting him in a brief encounter at the governor’s mansion.

Williams acknowledged meeting Young while he and his wife were at the mansion for dinner with the McDonnells, but said his interaction with her was brief. He said he only wrote the check for Young’s wedding because Maureen McDonnell asked.

Williams maintain and insisted through his hour of testimony on Wednesday that his relationship with the McDonnell family was strictly one of business.

“I needed credibility that comes with that office in Virginia,” Williams said of getting McDonnell’s support of his dietary supplement. “This was a business relationship.

Follow me on Twitter for updates @13NickOchsner.

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