Thursday, July 31, 2014
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A former CEO testified Thursday that his cozy relationship with Virginia's first family was a poor business decision, not friendship.
The government's star witness in the corruption trial against former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, testified that he showered the family with gifts requested by the former first lady. But businessman Jonnie Williams said he shouldn't have had to buy things such as an expensive Rolex to get the help he needed for his company, Star Scientific Inc.
"It was a bad decision on my part to buy that watch when she asked for it," Williams said. "I shouldn't have had to buy things like that to get the help I needed."
Williams said he thought it was wrong to buy the watch while he was seeking government support for his dietary supplements company's signature product, and he didn't want people to know. He testified that he wanted keep that and other gifts and loans secret, and the governor agreed it was a good idea.
The watch was passed to the jury, where each juror briefly inspected it. Williams said he bought the watch at a California jewelry store for between $6,000 and $7,000.
The watch is an important piece of evidence because it represents a tangible chunk of the more than $165,000 in secret gifts and loans prosecutors say Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, received from Williams. Other monetary gifts and loans can't be presented in court for jurors to hold, although many documents and photos have been shown on courtroom video screens.
Among them are photos of Bob McDonnell behind the wheel of Williams' Ferrari during a free vacation at the businessman's lake house. Williams testified that Maureen McDonnell, who also is charged in the 14-count indictment, was admiring the car shortly before the vacation and asked if any like it were available at the lake house. Williams said no.
"She said, 'It would be nice. We never get to do things like this,'" Williams testified.
He said he had the car delivered.
Bobby McDonnell, one of the former first couple's five children, testified Wednesday that he and his siblings goaded their father into driving the Ferrari. Bob McDonnell had not driven himself anywhere since becoming governor and the kids thought it would be amusing, the 22-year-old son said.
On the stand Thursday, Williams said Maureen McDonnell also made a comment about admiring his Rolex. He said he took it off and handed it to her for a closer look.
"She said, 'I'd really like to get one of these for the governor,'" Williams testified.
He said he asked if she wanted him to buy one and she replied: "Yes, that would be nice."
Maureen McDonnell gave the watch to her husband as a Christmas present. It is engraved "Robert F. McDonnell, 71st Governor of Virginia."
While Williams was generous with some gifts, he said he rebuffed other requests by Maureen McDonnell because he thought they were too visible. He said one of the McDonnells' daughters called him at her mother's direction, saying Williams should buy the daughter a car. He also said that Maureen McDonnell asked Williams to sell his luxury SUV to her at a discount so she could give it to one of her sons.
Williams said Maureen also asked Williams to purchase money-losing Virginia Beach rental properties that the McDonnells owned — another request he rejected.
Williams testified that he and Bob McDonnell discussed a possible secret transfer of Star Scientific stock to the governor so he could borrow money against it to ease money problems he was having with real estate investments. Williams said he wanted to keep the deal just between the two of them because he thought it was wrong.
"It could be violating laws. I don't know that. It could be," he said.
"I didn't want anyone to know I was helping the governor financially with his problems while he was helping my company," Williams said.
He said that when he told McDonnell he wanted to keep the deal secret, the governor "said that was fine with him."
Williams said he ultimately concluded he couldn't transfer the stock without disclosing it to federal regulators. According to prosecutors, Williams ended up making a $50,000 loan instead.
A prosecutor asked Williams if he bought gifts for the McDonnells because they were friends.
"The McDonnells are not my personal friends," Williams said. "I thought it was good for my company."