RICHMOND, Va. – Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell blew a kiss and prayed with his wife, Maureen, before they pleaded not guilty to corruption charges that they accepted over $165,000 in loans and gifts from a wealthy friend in exchange for using the governorship to improperly promote the friend’s business.
McDonnell, a Republican, appeared in good spirits as he entered U.S. District Court for his first appearance, even blowing a kiss to the press. He and his wife bowed their heads in prayer with a priest before walking through the doors of the courtroom.
They were indicted Tuesday on 14 charges including making false statements, four counts of fraud and six counts of obtaining property under the color of official right. If convicted, they could face decades in prison and between $250,000 and $1 million in fines.
A trial date has been set for July 28 and is expected to last five or six weeks. The McDonnell’s requested a trial by jury.
McDonnell largely ignored reporters’ questions at the U.S. District Court in his state capital today, but he has previously admitted to accepting the gifts and not properly disclosing them. Regardless, in a Tuesday night press conference he strong denied the charges as “false allegations” and that he had done “nothing illegal.”
In an unusual move, judges presiding at the initial appearance and subsequent arraignment explained why a request to delay today’s appearance by the defense had been denied. Magistrate Judge David Novak said at the initial appearance he wanted to make clear to both prosecution and defense that the early date was to curb “extrajudicial comments,” referring to how they have conducted themselves in the press and a string of leaks surrounding the controversy.
“This case is going to be tried in the courtroom and it is not to be tried in the media,” warned the magistrate, adding “the gamesmanship with the media ends now.”
Novak warned attorneys found responsible of leaking confidential details would be disbarred and face possible jail time.
Judge James Spencer took it a step further in the arraignment and said, “This will not be a trial by press conference or press release.”
The 43-page indictment issued this week includes some eye popping details of the couple’s relationship with Jonnie Williams, CEO of dietary supplement company Star Scientific and a campaign donor. Near the top of the list is a $20,000 New York city shopping spree for Maureen McDonnell paid by Williams. Also included is a $50,000 loan for their daughter’s wedding after Mrs. McDonnell told Williams, “she could help Star Scientific but that she needed JW’s financial assistance,” the indictment says.
Lawyers for the McDonnells assert the benefits to Williams were limited to the governor arranging meetings between state officials and Star Scientific, and a number of appearances by the governor at official and private events which involved the company.
In Tuesday’s remarks Robert McDonnell said he had given Williams “the same routine courtesies and access to state government that I and every other governor before me afforded to thousands of individuals, companies, charities and other organizations whether they were donors or not.”