By Paul Goldman
Editor's note: Paul Goldman is a guest columnist for DecisionVirginia.com. The views expressed below are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NBC12.
Did proescutors' star accuser, Henrico businessman Jonnie Williams, target Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen? The indictment, influenced by the Star Scientific founder’s immunized testimony, claims the First Couple pursued Williams’ money. But did he cleverly bait the hook?
Unsaid in the indictment is Williams’ long history as donor to Republican politicians. He provided sizeable sums to 2005 GOP gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore, but missed the McDonnell bandwagon except for loaning the campaign a company jet, curiously misidentified by prosecutors as “JW’s aircraft.”
It is not surprising, therefore, the indictment admits Williams arranged to meet the Governor-elect and his wife in early December in New York City. There is no discussion revealing how or why the meeting took place. The indictment does claim “Maureen McDonnell asked for [Williams’] assistance in finding a designer dress for [the] … inauguration.”
But who first broached the subject? We don’t know. The indictment says Williams agreed to pay for a dress by Oscar de la Renta, a gift roughly valued at $10,000 - $15,000. Who put the issue on the table?
The indictment goes on to say Williams and the Governor didn’t meet next until October. McDonnell flew from Richmond to Sacramento on Star Scientific’s jet for a political event. Williams didn’t take the flight west but did join McDonnell for the return. The indictment says Williams “used the trip as an opportunity to discuss Star Scientific’s products” with McDonnell and ask help for the struggling company. The indictment fails to answer key questions about this trip including whether McDonnell knew Williams intended to hitch a ride back. State law valued the trip at $42,000.
Prosecutors say Williams and McDonnell didn’t hook up again until early February 2011 at a Star Scientific dinner for health professionals at a Richmond hotel. On the day of the meeting, “JW contacted one of [the Governor’s staff] and requested “the Governor speak." This is almost always impossible on such short notice. Yet the Governor and First Lady showed. Who made it happen?
BOTTOM LINE: From December 2009 through March 2011, Williams is the pursuer. What did he know about the McDonnell’s financial situation?
BY EARLY MAY, prosecutors claim the McDonnells became the pursuers, desperate to get Williams’ money.
The indictment allegations and related timeline are devastating to the McDonnells' image and deservedly so. It is seeming impossible to believe they merely suffered ethical blindness fostered by a desire to avoid revealing financial reversals.
Let’s concede the obvious: The McDonnells were greedy, if not seedy. But criminal? That requires believing the following: Jonnie Williams decided to risk jail and financial ruin for the functional equivalent of money he had readily offered with no strings to Mr. Kilgore. It is pocket change for one of the state’s wealthiest men?
This is particularly true since Williams got precisely what his legendary Modus Operandi wanted back in February of 2011. The master Star Scientific salesman knew how to use the photo of Governor McDonnell speaking at the dinner to legitimize the company’s products. This is why he asked permission to use it. His MO has been 30 years in the making.
Fact: Governor and Mrs. McDonnell were already “all-in” on Star Scientific; they had long been users of over-the-counter health store products. They didn’t need to be bribed, merely stroked. Williams is master at this.
The More Likely Scenario: At some point, the federal legal troubles affecting Star Scientific, all unknown to McDonnell, presented Williams with a Hobson’s choice. He could choose to fight the federal government and risk destroying his tens of millions of dollars in stock, or, to quote the immortal James Cagney line the actor never actually said, become a “dirty rat.”
He choose the latter, spinning a legal relationship into a tale of unparalleled corruption. “Nothing personal, strictly business” is the famous saying that comes to mind.
The real $165000 question involving the cash, loans and gifts given to the McDonnell’s: When did Williams first realize he might need to trade a Governor for Immunity?
My hunch: Far sooner than even the prosecutors may suspect.