Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell visits Danville Community College on… (Norm Shafer/For The Washington…)
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was aware of gifts and financial help provided by a wealthy Richmond area businessman during the same months the governor and his wife took steps to help his company, according to people familiar with documents and interviews gathered by federal investigators.
For example, McDonnell (R) was present at a charity auction in 2011 when the chief executive of Star Scientific, which makes a dietary supplement, successfully bid on a fashion tour of New York for the governor’s wife in front of a crowd of onlookers, witnesses said.
Separately, the executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., flew the governor and his wife on a weekend trip to Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, over Labor Day weekend last year. And Williams repeatedly allowed the governor, his sons and staff to play golf and buy golf gear at elite Richmond area country clubs, running up more than $7,000 on Williams’s tab, according to the documents turned over to authorities.
Each of these newly public examples of Williams’s generosity came on top of more than $150,000 worth of valuables and money The Washington Post has previously reported — gifts that Williams provided to the governor’s family over more than 18 months in 2011 and 2012.
People familiar with accounts that Williams and others have provided to investigators, as well as witnesses interviewed by The Post, say each of those gifts came with the governor’s knowledge — contrasting with an assertion by McDonnell’s attorneys that he was in the dark about the extent of the gifts Williams bestowed on his family.
Attorneys for the governor and first lady Maureen McDonnell argued to federal prosecutors two weeks ago that the governor should not be charged with any crimes, in part because of this ignorance, people familiar with the sessions said.
The governor could not have been influenced to improperly help the Star Scientific executive, they asserted, based on gifts he didn’t know about at the time. The couple’s attorneys told prosecutors that Maureen McDonnell worked to hide Williams’s gifts because she feared her husband’s disapproval, the people said.
What had been an unusually fast-paced investigation has hit some delays as prosecutors consider the evidence, including the governor’s account and new information, several people familiar with the probe say.
In recent weeks, the governor’s legal team lost a secret court battle to withhold from prosecutors internal office communications, those people said. McDonnell’s attorneys said the papers were protected by attorney-client privilege because they concerned communications between the governor and some staff members who are lawyers.
Prosecutors have now asked the governor’s and first lady’s attorneys to return for a second round of discussions no later than the week of Sept. 15, during which prosecutors are expected to lay out the key elements of the case, said a person familiar with the schedule.
Prosecutors could decide whether to file charges after the meetings, the person said. But the timing is somewhat tricky, because voters go to the polls Nov. 5 to select McDonnell’s successor, and prosecutors may want to avoid a perception that their work is influencing the results, people familiar with the investigation said.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.
Rich Galen, a spokesman for the governor’s legal team, said the “evidence is clear” that McDonnell complied with state disclosure laws, which require that elected officials report all gifts worth at least $50 but do not require that gifts to immediate family members be made public.
McDonnell has disclosed receiving $9,650 in gifts from Williams and Star Scientific, including private plane trips and a summer lake-house vacation.
On Friday, Galen said that Williams’s version of events cannot be trusted, and he stressed that neither Williams nor his company received any state grants, loans, contracts or similar tangible state benefits. Bill Burck, an attorney for Maureen McDonnell, said it is not surprising that the first couple socialized with Williams, since they were all friends.
Galen noted that a Star spokeswoman has previously said that the company never sought any special benefits from the state.
Williams and other Star Scientific officials have provided investigators with extensive details of gifts Williams gave to the governor and his relatives, and in some cases, their accounts differ from the governor’s about McDonnell’s role and knowledge, according to people familiar with the evidence.
Those accounts show that Williams arranged to be reimbursed by his company for many of the gifts, a sign that he viewed the gifts as a business expense that would pay dividends to the company.