Law
4:15 pm
Thu July 31, 2014

Star Witness Steps Up To The Stand In McDonnell's Corruption Trial

Originally published on Thu July 31, 2014 8:07 pm

The corruption trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell continues to unfold in Richmond. The prosecution's feature witness, Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams, testified Thursday against McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. Jeff Schapiro has helped in the Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage of the trial, and he speaks with Ari Shapiro.

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's been some remarkable testimony in federal court in Virginia, where former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen are on trial. They're accused of taking more than $150,000 worth of gifts from the owner of a nutritional supplement company in exchange for political favors. And at this point, you may be having a sense of déjà vu. There's a long list of politicians who have stood trial in recent years on allegations of exactly this kind of unethical behavior. This time, the businessman at the center of the scandal has immunity, so he's saying a lot.

We're joined now by Jeff Schapiro, who is covering the trial in Richmond. Jeff, welcome back to the program.

JEFF SCHAPIRO: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: And for more than a day, we've been hearing from this businessman who has immunity. What kinds of stories has he told on the witness stand?

SCHAPIRO: Well, among other things, he's gone into great detail about his discussions with Gov. McDonnell - discussion about a possible loan against shares in Star Scientific. But Mr. Williams made it very clear at several points in his testimony today that he wanted to conceal this relationship, one in which he was providing gifts, cash, grand munificence, in return for the governor's assistance to his company.

SHAPIRO: I understand he described the governor's wife Maureen coming up and begging him for money. I understand he testified that the reason he has a private jet is so that he can take people for flights like a former Gov. Bob McDonnell. Give us some of those details.

SCHAPIRO: There were plane trips to various conferences. Mrs. McDonnell accompanied Mr. Williams - Mr. Williams making it very clear the only reason he wanted Mrs. McDonnell along is that she was the First Lady of Virginia, and that her appearance lent credibility to his product.

SHAPIRO: What kind of defense is the McDonnell team offering?

SCHAPIRO: Well, at this point, of course, we haven't really heard from the defense. But, of course, in some very dramatic opening arguments, the defense made the case that there was a somewhat tortured - perhaps somewhat romantic but one-sided relationship between Mrs. McDonnell and Jonnie Williams. She viewed him, according to defense lawyers, as a favorite playmate.

The other argument that the defense has made is that Gov. McDonnell didn't do anything wrong. This is consistent with the culture and traditions of Virginia government, that the government puts a shoulder to the wheel for business.

SHAPIRO: When you talk about the culture and traditions of government, it is hard not to view the sort of horse trading unethical scandal that we're seeing play out in this trial. As part of the culture of government, what larger conclusions can you draw about ethics and politics from this case?

SCHAPIRO: Well, one wonders, given Virginia's long tradition of a business-friendly government, if perhaps some of these things took place and no one really noticed, because for a long time, Virginia's government, like so many southern governments, was controlled by a handful of like-minded conservative white guys. They looked out for business, business financed the political organization, the legislator came through with friendly laws and light regulation. This has been the pattern in the Commonwealth for a long, long time.

SHAPIRO: And it doesn't seem limited to the Commonwealth. When you look beyond Virginia, it seems as though every few months there's a case of a high-profile politician accused of accepting gifts in exchange for political favors.

SCHAPIRO: Well, I think there is another point here. And I am not a lawyer, but I hear this frequently from lawyers, that some of the statues under which this prosecution is taking place are very vague and leave a great deal of discretion to the government to make a case and to a jury to make a decision.

SHAPIRO: Jeff Schapiro is a political columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, joining us from Richmond. Thanks as always, Jeff.

SCHAPIRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.