A prominent political donor and his dietary supplement company have been cooperating for several months with federal prosecutors in a fast-moving public corruption investigation of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, according to three people familiar with the probe.
Jonnie R. Williams Sr., chief executive of Star Scientific, has turned over personal financial records and sat for interviews in which he provided firsthand accounts of luxury gifts and more than $120,000 given to McDonnell (R) and his family members since 2011, the people said.
Star has given prosecutors access to corporate records and offered information from other company officials. The three spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is in a sensitive stage.
The cooperation is an ominous sign for McDonnell, suggesting that federal prosecutors are focused on trying to build a potential criminal case against him.
McDonnell has not been charged, and prosecutors ultimately must determine whether they have the evidence to proceed against him.
But Williams is a critical witness who can offer investigators insight into the key issue for such a case: whether the governor and first lady agreed to take official actions that could help Williams’s company in exchange for his gifts.
McDonnell has repeatedly said he has broken no laws, insisting that he did nothing to help Williams’s company that he would not have done for any state-based enterprise. He has said he was not required by state law to disclose gifts given to his family members or a corporate loan that he said Williams provided. He has said he properly disclosed $50,000 given by Williams to his wife as a loan.
Still, McDonnell recently apologized for breaching the public’s trust and said he had repaid money he received from Williams, along with interest. Last week, he said he was working to return all of Williams’s gifts to his family.
But the federal probe is ongoing, as is an investigation by a state prosecutor in Richmond into whether the governor followed Virginia’s gift disclosure laws. Star Scientific has also told investors that it faces a securities probe.
Rich Galen, a spokesman for McDonnell, declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office and an attorney for Williams.
Legal experts said that if federal prosecutors pursue corruption charges against the Virginia governor, they will probably do so under the Hobbs Act, which prohibits elected officials from taking money or other items of value in exchange for the performance of official duties. To prove a violation of the law, they would have to show that McDonnell agreed to perform official acts for Williams.
Whether McDonnell followed through on those pledges — and whether an action by McDonnell resulted in benefits to Star — would not necessarily matter, experts say. “It’s not necessary under the law” for a payor to have benefitted, said Justin Shur, a lawyer who is the former deputy chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section.
The key, Shur said, is to prove that an elected official agreed to take some kind of official action in exchange for gifts or loans. “There needs to be a direct connection between the two,” Shur said.
Similarly, when trying to prove a crime, prosecutors need only show that McDonnell derived some benefit from the items given. So it would probably not matter whether Williams lent the money or gave it to McDonnell, nor whether Williams gave the gifts and money to McDonnell or to members of his family.
Timothy Maloney, a Maryland defense lawyer who has represented a number of clients in federal corruption cases, said the government often finds it easier to prove that elected officials accepted gifts. It’s much harder to prove a “quid pro quo” — that the officials agreed to use their public office to help someone in exchange for gifts.
“The quid aspect is what it is,” he said. “But the quo aspect — to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that the public official, in direct response to those gifts, actually [agreed to take] some official action — that’s always a substantial hurdle in these cases.”
Williams’s and Star’s cooperation would be critical to helping prosecutors determine precisely how events unfolded.
He can detail his conversations with the governor and his wife and outline the circumstances under which they accepted gifts and financial assistance.
And he can offer perspective on whether the money he gave to the governor’s wife and to a corporation McDonnell owns with his sister were loans that were intended to be repaid, as McDonnell has indicated. That’s an issue that could be important in determining whether the governor complied with state disclosure laws.