RICHMOND -- A close friend and longtime political ally of former Gov. Bob McDonnell sketched a troubling portrait of the governor’s wife Monday, laying a crazed rant and a “train wreck” conversation at the former first lady’s feet.
Phil Cox, who ran McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign in 2009, said Maureen McDonnell sent him “an insane rant of an email” after he helped stop plans to get her an expensive Oscar de la Renta dress for the governor’s inauguration.
The proposed benefactor in that plan? Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the former CEO at Star Scientific and the U.S. government’s star witness against the McDonnells as it tries to prove corruption charges.
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Cox also told a story from a 2012 presidential campaign event the McDonnells attended with Ann and Mitt Romney. On a campaign bus, Maureen McDonnell pitched Ann Romney on Anatabloc – Star Scientific’s unproven key product – as a potential cure for her multiple sclerosis, said Cox, who’s now executive director at the Republican Governors Association.
“I was horrified,” Cox said. “I just thought it was a train wreck, basically.”
The McDonnell defense has said Maureen McDonnell “drank the Kool-Aid” on Anatabloc, and attorneys have indicated she was Williams’ primary point of contact as the wealthy Virginia businessman lavished the family with gifts and tried to win the governor’s support for his product. Prosecutors have showed correspondence about off-the-books loans, though, solely between Williams and the governor.
Williams testified last week that he considered the tobacco-derived supplement to be the biggest thing since penicillin, but he wasn’t able to get state hospitals to run the clinical trials he wanted to prove his product’s worth. Nor did he win state grant funding to run those trials, but he did get a product launch at the governor’s mansion and meetings with state health officials.
Monday was Williams’ fourth and last day on the stand, and he reiterated much of what he told the jury last week, testifying to a pattern of gifts-for-credibility with the former first family. He said he made loans and gave gifts not for friendship, but to get the governor behind Anatabloc.
Cox testified that the relationship seemed more social; that Maureen McDonnell “adored” Williams and “would light up when he walked into the room.”
Williams “returned those feelings,” Cox said, and the two spent an inordinate amount of time together. He described the pair as “very friendly.”
The McDonnells have separate legal teams, but attorneys for both have said Maureen McDonnell had feelings for Williams. He has denied any romantic relationship with her, saying Monday that he found out about the alleged crush during last week’s proceedings.
She left the courthouse Monday without comment, and it’s unclear whether she’ll testify in this case.
Cox also testified that a weekend vacation that he and his wife shared with the McDonnells, Williams and Williams’ wife, “seemed completely a social event to me.” He said Williams flaunted his money, buying a $5,000 bottle of cognac for the group.
Williams said he was working that entire weekend, needling his way into the McDonnells’ lives so they’d help him with Anatabloc.
“I needed something here, OK?” Williams said. “It's business. I just don't recall paying my personal friends money to hang out with me.”
But Henry Asbill, one of Bob McDonnell's lead attorneys, noted that Williams gave generously to at least one friend, laying out cash for his children’s weddings much as he did for the McDonnells. Williams said he probably spent some $200,000 on this longtime friend.
Asbill also wanted to know if it was all business when Williams asked Bob McDonnell to call his father on his 80th birthday.
“This was a very personal thing for my father,” Williams replied. “But this cost me ... hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The McDonnells are accused of taking more than $150,000 in gifts and loans for Williams while helping shepherd Anatabloc on an ultimately unsuccessful road to state clinical trials and marketing success. Williams testified Monday that the McDonnells never tried to return any of these gifts, and that they never dubbed anything too extravagant until after investigators started looking into their dealings.
That disputes what the McDonnell defense said earlier in the trial, when an attorney indicated that Maureen McDonnell felt a Rolex watch Williams gave her, to give the governor as a Christmas gift, was over the top. But then, the defense just spent two days painting Williams as a liar who needs federal immunity for a series of shady and possibly illegal stock deals.
He got it by tweaking his story to prosecutors in an effort to take down the McDonnells, attorneys have said. And Asbill reminded the jury Monday that there are civil suits pending against Star Scientific, in part because of Williams’ dealings.