Indictment of former Gov. McDonnell paints picture of couple living to extremes

January 22, 2014 at 7:00 PM EST
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife were indicted on federal corruption charges for receiving tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans from a wealthy campaign donor. The former rising star in the Republican party has vowed to fight the charges. Judy Woodruff talks to Rosalind Helderman of The Washington Post.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the latest twist in a political scandal involving Virginia’s former Republican governor and his wife.

BOB MCDONNELL, R-former Va. governor: I come before you this evening as someone who has been falsely and wrongfully accused, and his public service has been wrongfully attacked.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Tuesday’s indictment on federal corruption charges marked a spectacular fall for a once promising Republican star.

The government alleges that McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, received tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, from loans to money for a daughter’s wedding, all from Jonnie Williams, a wealthy campaign donor and owner of a dietary supplement company.

McDonnell pledged last night to fight the charges, while insisting he didn’t break any Virginia law.

BOB MCDONNELL: I have apologized for my poor judgment, and I accept full responsibility for accepting these legal gifts and loans. However, I repeat again emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal friendship and his generosity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McDonnell first gained national attention for his 18-point victory in Virginia’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign. Months later, he delivered the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address.

BOB MCDONNELL: Today, the federal government is simply trying to do too much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: His political stock rose even higher in 2012, when he found himself on Mitt Romney’s short list for a vice presidential running mate.

Now McDonnell’s focus is solely on his legal battle, with an arraignment scheduled for this Friday.

We take a closer look at the charges against the McDonnells with Rosalind Helderman. She’s been covering the story for The Washington Post.

Thank you for joining us.

 Roz Helderman, tell us exactly, what are the kinds of charges the government has leveled against the former governor and his wife?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN, The Washington Post: It’s a very extensive indictment.

It’s 14 counts in all against both the governor and his wife. There are things like bank fraud. There’s an obstruction charge for the first lady. There is wire fraud, violating what is called the Hobbs Act.

These are basically federal corruption statutes. And what it boils down to is a quid pro quo, exchanging the promise of official action by the state of Virginia on behalf of a wealthy businessman’s company in exchange for gifts and loans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And some of the details are pretty remarkable, the e-mail exchanges between Mrs. McDonnell and the governor’s staff about the what she called unconscionable amount of credit card debt they had, the shopping trip that she went on with the businessman Jonnie Williams. Tell us about some of that.

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Yes.

What emerges from the indictment is a picture of a couple really experiencing life sort of in extremes. On the one hand, they were experiencing some obvious, but not known to the public, financial distress. They had invested heavily in real estate during the financial boom and were having trouble making payments.

And they went to this man, Mr. Williams, to help them out of a bind when they were having trouble making payments on homes that they had purchased. But, on the other hand, there was a real desire for luxury items. The first lady bought all kinds of things on a New York City shopping spree, Louis Vuitton shoes, Oscar de la Renta dresses. The governor and his sons went golfing at exclusive golf clubs in the Richmond area, charging thousands of dollars to Mr. Williams.

So you really see two sides of this couple.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when the indictment talks about official actions taken in is behalf, what are they talking about? What are they saying the former governor did?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: They outline a number of things the governor did.

The governor and first lady hosted an event at the governor’s mansion, a sort of launch party for a new dietary supplement being offered — that was being introduced to market by Mr. Williams’ company. The governor set up meetings for Mr. Williams with top state officials.

And the governor also appeared to show some interest in encouraging public universities to conduct clinical studies of a chemical found in the supplement. He insisted emphatically that that doesn’t sort of constitute an official action of the kind that is usually used in corruption statutes. It’s just sort of helping out an interested constituent with a business in the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there are references to the McDonnells lying to investigators?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: That’s a charge specifically leveled at the first lady, who was interviewed by investigators in February and, the authorities say, told a number of lies during that — during that interview.

She said, for instance, that her husband had met Mr. Williams years ago, when the two worked together. In fact, they had only met in 2009, when he was running for governor. She also said that they were making periodic payments on a loan that Mr. Williams had made to them. That wasn’t true.

They had made no payments to Mr. Williams until after we had started writing stories about this. And the governor paid back all the money in July.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we know, Rosalind Helderman, Virginia is known to have relatively lax ethic laws compared with other states around the country. And when the governor made his statement yesterday, he insisted — he has apologized and said he made mistakes, but he said he didn’t violate Virginia law.

So, is there — are there technical loopholes in the law that he could explain, somehow explain this away for him?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: So, under Virginia law, you are allowed to accept as an elected official gifts of any size, including money, as long as you disclose those worth at least $50.

There has been a state investigation into whether the governor properly disclosed gifts and also stock holdings he had in Mr. Williams’ company. And that investigation has not come forward with any results thus far.

But federal officials are actually concerned with federal law, not with state law. And they believe that there are federal violations here, regardless of disclosure requirements, having to do with this issue of quid pro quo, an illegal exchange with this man.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Roz Helderman, we know that not only the former Governor Bob McDonnell, he has attorneys. His wife has an attorney or more. We know Jonnie Williams, the businessman, the company, Star Scientific.

Where does this go from here?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Now we enter a classic criminal — criminal trial phase. The governor is set to be arraigned on Friday. There was a thought that that might be pushed off, but it looks like that will probably go ahead on Friday.

We would expect him to enter a plea of not guilty, given everything he has said publicly. And, you know, there’s going to be some fighting in court, and eventually we’re probably going to see a very messy and probably unpleasant trial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, a sense of how this happened to be announced right now, just days after he left office?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Well, that’s a very interesting question.

We had reported in December that he had been informed by the U.S. attorney in Virginia that the U.S. attorney intended to seek criminal charges. But then the governor and first lady’s lawyers went to top officials at the Department of Justice in Washington and asked them to hold off. They told them to take another look at the case.

But one of the arguments they made was that they shouldn’t do it in December, just a couple of weeks before Governor Terry McAuliffe took office, that it would be not in the interest of the public for the sort of smooth transition of power to be disrupted.

And whether that argument was persuasive or something else, they did hold off. And so the charges didn’t come until now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rosalind Helderman with The Washington Post, really fine reporting over the many months.

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

 

 

TOPICS > Politics

Indictment of former Gov. McDonnell paints picture of couple living to extremes

January 22, 2014 at 6:43 PM EST
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife were indicted on federal corruption charges for receiving tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans from a wealthy campaign donor. The former rising star in the Republican party has vowed to fight the charges. Judy Woodruff talks to Rosalind Helderman of The Washington Post.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the latest twist in a political scandal involving Virginia’s former Republican governor and his wife.

BOB MCDONNELL, R-former Va. governor: I come before you this evening as someone who has been falsely and wrongfully accused, and his public service has been wrongfully attacked.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Tuesday’s indictment on federal corruption charges marked a spectacular fall for a once promising Republican star.

The government alleges that McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, received tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, from loans to money for a daughter’s wedding, all from Jonnie Williams, a wealthy campaign donor and owner of a dietary supplement company.

McDonnell pledged last night to fight the charges, while insisting he didn’t break any Virginia law.

BOB MCDONNELL: I have apologized for my poor judgment, and I accept full responsibility for accepting these legal gifts and loans. However, I repeat again emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal friendship and his generosity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McDonnell first gained national attention for his 18-point victory in Virginia’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign. Months later, he delivered the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address.

BOB MCDONNELL: Today, the federal government is simply trying to do too much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: His political stock rose even higher in 2012, when he found himself on Mitt Romney’s short list for a vice presidential running mate.

Now McDonnell’s focus is solely on his legal battle, with an arraignment scheduled for this Friday.

We take a closer look at the charges against the McDonnells with Rosalind Helderman. She’s been covering the story for The Washington Post.

Thank you for joining us.

 Roz Helderman, tell us exactly, what are the kinds of charges the government has leveled against the former governor and his wife?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN, The Washington Post: It’s a very extensive indictment.

It’s 14 counts in all against both the governor and his wife. There are things like bank fraud. There’s an obstruction charge for the first lady. There is wire fraud, violating what is called the Hobbs Act.

These are basically federal corruption statutes. And what it boils down to is a quid pro quo, exchanging the promise of official action by the state of Virginia on behalf of a wealthy businessman’s company in exchange for gifts and loans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And some of the details are pretty remarkable, the e-mail exchanges between Mrs. McDonnell and the governor’s staff about the what she called unconscionable amount of credit card debt they had, the shopping trip that she went on with the businessman Jonnie Williams. Tell us about some of that.

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Yes.

What emerges from the indictment is a picture of a couple really experiencing life sort of in extremes. On the one hand, they were experiencing some obvious, but not known to the public, financial distress. They had invested heavily in real estate during the financial boom and were having trouble making payments.

And they went to this man, Mr. Williams, to help them out of a bind when they were having trouble making payments on homes that they had purchased. But, on the other hand, there was a real desire for luxury items. The first lady bought all kinds of things on a New York City shopping spree, Louis Vuitton shoes, Oscar de la Renta dresses. The governor and his sons went golfing at exclusive golf clubs in the Richmond area, charging thousands of dollars to Mr. Williams.

So you really see two sides of this couple.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when the indictment talks about official actions taken in is behalf, what are they talking about? What are they saying the former governor did?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: They outline a number of things the governor did.

The governor and first lady hosted an event at the governor’s mansion, a sort of launch party for a new dietary supplement being offered — that was being introduced to market by Mr. Williams’ company. The governor set up meetings for Mr. Williams with top state officials.

And the governor also appeared to show some interest in encouraging public universities to conduct clinical studies of a chemical found in the supplement. He insisted emphatically that that doesn’t sort of constitute an official action of the kind that is usually used in corruption statutes. It’s just sort of helping out an interested constituent with a business in the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there are references to the McDonnells lying to investigators?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: That’s a charge specifically leveled at the first lady, who was interviewed by investigators in February and, the authorities say, told a number of lies during that — during that interview.

She said, for instance, that her husband had met Mr. Williams years ago, when the two worked together. In fact, they had only met in 2009, when he was running for governor. She also said that they were making periodic payments on a loan that Mr. Williams had made to them. That wasn’t true.

They had made no payments to Mr. Williams until after we had started writing stories about this. And the governor paid back all the money in July.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we know, Rosalind Helderman, Virginia is known to have relatively lax ethic laws compared with other states around the country. And when the governor made his statement yesterday, he insisted — he has apologized and said he made mistakes, but he said he didn’t violate Virginia law.

So, is there — are there technical loopholes in the law that he could explain, somehow explain this away for him?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: So, under Virginia law, you are allowed to accept as an elected official gifts of any size, including money, as long as you disclose those worth at least $50.

There has been a state investigation into whether the governor properly disclosed gifts and also stock holdings he had in Mr. Williams’ company. And that investigation has not come forward with any results thus far.

But federal officials are actually concerned with federal law, not with state law. And they believe that there are federal violations here, regardless of disclosure requirements, having to do with this issue of quid pro quo, an illegal exchange with this man.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Roz Helderman, we know that not only the former Governor Bob McDonnell, he has attorneys. His wife has an attorney or more. We know Jonnie Williams, the businessman, the company, Star Scientific.

Where does this go from here?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Now we enter a classic criminal — criminal trial phase. The governor is set to be arraigned on Friday. There was a thought that that might be pushed off, but it looks like that will probably go ahead on Friday.

We would expect him to enter a plea of not guilty, given everything he has said publicly. And, you know, there’s going to be some fighting in court, and eventually we’re probably going to see a very messy and probably unpleasant trial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, a sense of how this happened to be announced right now, just days after he left office?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Well, that’s a very interesting question.

We had reported in December that he had been informed by the U.S. attorney in Virginia that the U.S. attorney intended to seek criminal charges. But then the governor and first lady’s lawyers went to top officials at the Department of Justice in Washington and asked them to hold off. They told them to take another look at the case.

But one of the arguments they made was that they shouldn’t do it in December, just a couple of weeks before Governor Terry McAuliffe took office, that it would be not in the interest of the public for the sort of smooth transition of power to be disrupted.

And whether that argument was persuasive or something else, they did hold off. And so the charges didn’t come until now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rosalind Helderman with The Washington Post, really fine reporting over the many months.

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.