Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks during a battleground preservation… (Win McNamee/Getty Images )
Attorneys for Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, will spend Monday locked in separate hours-long meetings trying to convince federal prosecutors that the first couple should not be charged in the gifts scandal that has dominated state politics.
The meetings open a new, critical phase of the investigation, timed to help prosecutors decide over the next few weeks whether to file charges, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation.
Federal authorities have been investigating whether McDonnell (R) agreed to take official actions to aid nutritional supplement company Star Scientific while accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and money from its chief executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
The central issues for prosecutors are what precisely McDonnell may have said or offered to Williams on his own and how much the governor knew about his wife’s acceptance of gifts from Williams and her actions to help his company just as Star was launching a new product.
As the scandal has shined an uncomfortable spotlight on the governor’s marriage, McDonnell’s side has conveyed to authorities that his wife often purposely kept him in the dark about the largess she was accepting from Williams, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
Their goal with that assertion is to convince prosecutors that it would have been impossible for Williams’s gifts to have influenced the governor in his official duties because McDonnell learned of many only after his wife had accepted them.
Prosecutors will have to decide how credible they find those assertions when considered against the timeline of the first couple’s interactions with Williams and other evidence, including Williams’s recollections.
According to two people familiar with his version, Williams has countered the account from the governor’s side. He has told authorities that McDonnell frequently spoke with him about ways he and the state could help Star Scientific gain prestige and scientific endorsements for its new anti-inflammatory supplement. The two people and others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
Williams also has told investigators that the governor was aware of his gifts and thanked him for helping his family during a time of financial strain.
McDonnell has said he broke no laws, tried to comply with state financial disclosure rules and took no unusual actions to assist the struggling nutritional supplement company beyond what he would do for any Virginia company.
The pace of the investigation
The now fast-paced timeline of the investigation is driven in part by two factors.
First, prosecutors generally wish to move as quickly as possible if they think there is evidence of criminal actions by a sitting, still powerful elected official.
Second, Justice Department guidelines discourage prosecutors from taking action during an election season to avoid the perception that they are trying to influence the outcome.
According to those rules, prosecutors would find it more difficult to proceed against McDonnell after Labor Day, given that Virginians will go to the polls Nov. 5 to choose his successor.
The governor’s side has been pressing prosecutors to wait until after the election to conclude their investigation, but the U.S. attorney’s office has not shown any appetite to delay, the two people with knowledge of the probe said.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment, as did Jerry W. Kilgore, an attorney for Williams. Rich Galen, a spokesman for the governor’s legal team, also declined to comment.
William Burck, an attorney for Maureen McDonnell, said that she genuinely believed in Star Scientific’s promise but that she never sought or asked Williams for anything and never agreed to help him or his company in exchange for gifts.
“Any suggestion to the contrary is false and belied by the facts,” he said. “Anything Jonnie Williams did for Mrs. McDonnell and her family was done solely out of friendship, at least that’s what she understood for her part. If Jonnie Williams is telling the government something different, it can only be because he’s willing to say anything to save himself from prosecution for other crimes.”
Just as the legal showdown is unfolding in Alexandria on Monday, McDonnell will be conducting one of the last major acts of his four-year term. He will be delivering an address to state lawmakers in Richmond on the health of Virginia’s finances.
While outgoing governors are typically welcomed warmly by members of both parties at the annual speech, lawmakers were bracing for an awkward scene as they greet a governor known to be at the center of an aggressive corruption probe.