Virginia’s First Lady Increasingly At Center Of Gifts Scandal

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) kisses his wife, Maureen, after he addressed a joint meeting of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees at the Capitol on Dec. 17, 2012 in Richmond, Va.
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“I was not in a role of promoting Star Scientific. There was an event held at the mansion in 2011. The event was arranged by the First Lady’s office.” — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, July 30, 2013

The gifts scandal that has rocked the Virginia governor’s mansion has reached a critical juncture. After months of news stories and reports of a federal investigation, the Washington Post recently suggested that if charges are in fact coming against Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), they could come in a matter of days.

At the same time, the governor’s wife, Maureen McDonnell, has received increasing attention for her role in the scandal, while the governor and his team have taken to drawing bright lines between his actions and hers.

The scandal, for those unfamiliar, concerns tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and other money that Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a Virginia dietary supplements company, provided to the McDonnells in recent years. Much of the money came in the form of three payments — Bob McDonnell has insisted they were loans — from Williams to the first family. Williams gave Maureen McDonnell $50,000 in 2011. The following year, he gave $70,000 to a real estate business owned jointly by Bob McDonnell and the governor’s sister. Williams also, among other things, paid for a luxury shopping trip in New York City, a $6,500 Rolex watch, and wrote big checks for the weddings of two of the McDonnells’ daughters. In recent weeks, Bob McDonnell announced that the “loans” and all the “tangible” gifts from Williams had been repaid and returned.

The ongoing federal investigation has been looking into whether Bob McDonnell agreed to take official actions to help William’s company, Star Scientific, during the time he and his family were receiving gifts from the businessman, according to the Post. On Monday, attorneys for both Bob and Maureen McDonnell reportedly met separately with federal prosecutors, to try to convince them that their clients should not face charges. (The governor’s lawyer has previously stated that key state agencies did not give any public funds, grants, or contracts to Star Scientific.)

Early reports on the McDonnells’ relationship with Williams noted that Maureen McDonnell spoke at a Star Scientific event in Florida in June 2011. And internal emails released by the governor’s mansion showed it was the first lady’s office that arranged for a Star Scientific event to be held at the governor’s mansion on Aug. 30, 2011. The governor himself underlined that fact in a live interview last month.

“I was not in a role of promoting Star Scientific,” McDonnell told WTOP. “There was an event held at the mansion in 2011. The event was arranged by the First Lady’s office.”

But the picture of Maureen McDonnell’s role in the scandal was further complicated last week, when the Post confirmed that Maureen McDonnell had purchased tens of thousands of dollars worth of Star Scientific stock during the same period that Williams was providing his gifts. Maureen McDonnell’s attorney, Bill Burck, told the Post his client first purchased more than $30,000 worth of Star Scientific stock on June 1, 2011, just a few days after Williams wrote the first lady the $50,000 check. She purchased another $2,000 worth of stock on Aug. 2, 2011, the day after she set up a meeting between Williams and a top state health official. In December 2011, she sold the stock at a significant loss. But then, on Jan. 20, 2012, she used the proceeds to purchase more than $15,000 in company stock.

Burck told the Post that Maureen McDonnell had made the purchases separately from her husband. And a person “familiar with the investigation” has told the newspaper that Bob McDonnell’s legal team has told authorities that the first lady kept the governor in the dark about Williams’ gifts.

Williams, meanwhile, has been cooperating with the government, and representatives for McDonnells have lashed out at him in recent days.

“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,” Burck told the Post. “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.”

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