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McDonnell suggests political motive in indictment

By Dave Ress, dress@dailypress.com

7:55 PM EST, January 22, 2014

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RICHMOND — Former Gov. Bob McDonnell fired back Wednesday at prosecutors who filed corruption charges against him and his wife, Maureen, with heavy hints that the federal case is politically motivated.

And, his lawyers argued, President Barack Obama would be just as guilty of corruption if federal prosecutors applied the same standards to him.

McDonnell's first legal response to an indictment on 14 counts of using his office for personal gain, wire fraud, false statements on loan applications and obstruction of justice reiterates his insistence that he and his wife did nothing illegal in accepting more than $160,000 in gifts and loans from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who was seeking state help to promote and develop a new nutritional supplement.

"For over a year, the federal government has conducted a wide-ranging investigation of Gov. McDonnell and his wife," the motion says. "That investigation has been conducted at the same time as a hotly contested election to succeed Gov. McDonnell."

The federal government repeatedly leaked salacious and damaging details from its investigation, the filing says.

"The election occurred in the shadow of those leaks, with the Democratic candidate eking out a narrow victory over the Republican, while Gov. McDonnell was effectively sidelined by the steady stream of negative leaks," it continues.

McDonnell argues that despite "deploying tremendous prosecutorial resources," it was clear to prosecutors early on that nothing he did for Williams came close to the kind of act that justifies a bribery charge.

The government then invented a new theory that erases all limits on the scope of bribery law, the motion says. The U.S. Justice Department's manual for prosecutors notes that a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling holds that prosecutors only have to prove that a public official received a payment knowing that the payment was made in return for official acts. Acting isn't necessary, under that view.

"That theory would – if applied neutrally – outlaw basic political practices, making criminals of not only the president, but also the government's Democratic predecessor," McDonnell's motion argues.

The federal case is that McDonnell and his wife solicited loans and gifts from Williams, even after Williams told the former governor as the two were flying to California on Williams' private jet that his company needed state help.

The indictment alleges that sometime after that, while asking Williams for a $50,000 loan, Mrs. McDonnell told him that she could help Star Scientific but that she and her husband needed financial help.

Williams gave the McDonnells clothing, jewelry and golf outings, picked up the $15,000 tab for catering at a daughter's wedding and lent McDonnell's faltering real estate venture a total of $70,000 over the next two years.

In return, the indictment alleges, McDonnell helped connect Star Scientific executives with state officials who the company hoped would fund research into its new product.

The McDonnells headlined promotional events for Star Scientific products, sparking excited speculation among investors in the thinly traded penny stock of major state backing for the company, helping to boost its price. Mrs. McDonnell invested in the stock after the couple received their first loan from Williams.

McDonnell argues he was doing what presidents do when they invite benefactors to the White House or allow donors to join in policy discussions with senior officials.

His brief notes that Sen. Tim Kaine, his predecessor in office, reported nearly $187,000 in gifts during his eight years as lieutenant governor and governor. The motion says Kaine reappointed man who let him stay for free at his Caribbean home, a gift Kaine valued at $18,000, vacation to a position on the unpaid commission that reviews candidates for college and university boards and makes recommendations to the governor. Kaine also appointed a deputy secretary of transportation a well-known aviation expert who had given him trips to the Northern Neck, Shenandoah Valley and horse country, McDonnell's brief says.

"Unlike Gov. McDonnell, Senator Kaine has never been falsely accused of committing a federal crime, even though he conferred far more substantial government benefits on his benefactors than anything alleged here," the motion says.

"That is a ridiculous claim," a Kaine spokeswoman said.

McDonnell's brief does not report that during his eight years as attorney general and governor, he reported nearly $276,000 in gifts, and that he had not disclosed most of the loans and gifts Williams made.

McDonnell's lawyers also argue that the prosecutors' case is based on Williams' testimony, which he gave after winning immunity from prosecution on charges of violating federal securities and food and drug safety laws. It also relies on testimony from Mrs. McDonnell's former chief of staff, who McDonnell's lawyers say was angling for a consulting contract as she arranged a Star Scientific event with the McDonnells at the Governor's Mansion.

Meanwhile, at the General Assembly, the House subcommitee drilling down on ethics reforms in the wake of this scandal met for nearly three hours Wednesday, plowing through some of the specifics of a reform philosophy that has significant support in both chambers.

The idea is to keep people with business before the state from giving gifts valued over $250 to public officials. Legislators haven't decided yet whether they'll define "business before the state" in the code or leave that up to a new ethics commission that the still-evolving legislation also would create, according to Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, the legislation's primary sponsor.

The subcommittee plans to meet again Friday, and will likely post a bill online for people to review after that, Chairman David Albo, R-Springfield, said. There likely will be a public hearing on the bill next week, Albo said.

Daily Press staff writer Travis Fain contributed to this report. Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.