Jonnie Williams: “It was a business relationship” with McDonnells
RICHMOND -- Jonnie Williams, the wealthy businessman whose lavish gifts and cash loans are at the center of the government's case against Bob and Maureen McDonnell, took the stand late Wednesday afternoon.
Williams walked into the courtroom accompanied by two attorneys who sat on the front row through his entire testimony.
Lead prosecutor Michael Dry began the questioning by walking Williams through an explanation of how he started Star Scientific, the company where Williams served as CEO until being recently forced out of the job.
Williams told jurors that he start Star when he bought a cigarette factory from Brown and Williamson tobacco company. At first, Williams explained , his company made cigarettes and cigars before expanding into research in hopes of developing a cigarette with less harmful side effects.
That research, Williams said, led to a discovery of a compound in tobacco called anatabine. On the stand Wednesday, Williams told jurors the compound is capable of reducing or eliminating inflammation of joints.
Armed with the discovery and a patent, Williams said he set out to turn his tobacco company into a bio-pharmaceutical company and manufacture health supplements containing the compound anatabine.
That's where Williams told a jury he needed the help of Virginia's newly elected governor.
Williams said he met Bob McDonnell two or three times during his campaign for governor in 2009. When Dry asked what the relationship was like between he and McDonnell, Williams said it was transactional.
'He's a politician. I'm a businessman,' Williams told the jury.
But Williams set out to build a strong connection with McDonnell by the end of 2009. He detailed a meeting between himself, Bob and Maureen McDonnell and several other guests at the Four Seasons hotel in New York City.
At that meeting, Williams said, Maureen told him she was looking for a dress to wear to the inauguration and he suggested he could try and get her a dress on loan through a friend who was close to Oscar de la Renta, a clothing designer.
Williams said, ultimately, he was not able to get Maureen a dress on loan so he offered to buy her a dress for the inauguration instead. Staff at the governor's office told Williams he could not buy her a dress, he testified.
According to Williams, Maureen was angry that he was not allowed to buy her a dress and told him that she would take a rain check.
After that meeting, Williams said he had little or no contact with the McDonnells until his office asked to use his plane to fly to an event in California. Williams said he loaned the governor the jet to take to Sacrament for a political event and the hopped a commercial flight himself to meet up with the governor in California.
Williams said he flew out there in order to have time with McDonnell to pitch him on his new dietary supplement, Anatabloc.
'I figured [the flight] would give me five our six hours to explain to him what I had discovered here in Virginia and let him know that I really needed his help,' Williams said of the flight.
Specifically, Williams said he told McDonnell that he needed help testing his product and that McDonnell agreed to introduce him to the doctor who served as the state Health Secretary in order to discuss how his product could help state employees.
According to Williams, McDonnell arranged the meeting but nothing ever came of it because the secretary was skeptical of Anatabloc.
After that plane ride back from California, Williams said he and McDonnell didn't talk for a while.
'He was doing his business, I was doing mine,' Williams said.
The McDonnells next saw Williams in February of 2011 at an event at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond launching a new product that Star Scientific had developed using anatabine.
Williams said he arranged for the first couple to stop by the event and have McDonnell make brief remarks highlighting the importance of supporting companies like Star Scientific in Virginia.
On the stand, Williams said the support of Virginia's sitting governor was crucial to helping launch Anatabloc by lending credibility to the product.
Early in his testimony, Williams said befriending politicians was good for his business.
'If you're a Virginia company, you want to make sure you have access to these people,' Williams said of the state's politicians.
After the launch event at the Jefferson Hotel, Williams said his interactions with the McDonnells began to pick up, starting with an invitation to attend a dinner with the couple in New York City.
Williams testified that Maureen called and invited him to attend the dinner and sit at the head table with her husband.
Maureen also said she would take that rain check to buy a dress.
Upon hearing that, Williams said he doubled checked with the first lady to make sure it would be OK for him to take her shopping, since the governor's staff had stopped it before.
'We can go shopping now,' Williams said Maureen told him. 'Are you sure that's OK?' Williams said he asked, to which she replied it was.
Williams said the rain check to buy one dress turned into a shopping spree in New York City.
'This thing went on for hours,' Williams told prosecutor Michael Dry when he was pressed to recall specific details.
According to Williams, the afternoon outing with Maureen McDonnell and her chief of staff, Mary Shea Sutherland, began with lunch at the Bergdorf Goodman department store before the trio met with a designer at Oscar de la Renta, shopped at Louis Vuitton and then ended back at the designer dress section of Bergdorf Goodman.
Williams said Maureen was shopping for two dresses one for her wedding anniversary and another for her daughter's wedding but she ended up with $20,000 worth of stuff.
Among the items purchased during the shopping spree, Williams said, were one or two dresses and a white leather coat at Oscar de la Renta; a pair of shoes, a purse and a raincoat at Louis Vuitton and at least one dress at Bergdorf Goodman.
That night, Williams said he sat with the governor at the head table of a political event.
Despite the plane flight, high priced gifts and several meals with the McDonnells, Williams said he still had more selling to do on Anatabloc. That's why, he said, he accepted Maureen's invitation for he and his wife to attend dinner with the first couple at the governor's mansion sometime after the trip to New York City.
At dinner that night, Williams said he and his wife spent the entire time pitching Anatabloc. Williams said his wife took it upon herself to share how the supplement help cure a thyroid problem she had.
It was at that dinner where Williams also met the McDonnells' daughter, Cailin, who ultimately received a $15,000 check from Williams to help pay for her wedding reception.
In testimony on Tuesday, Cailing McDonnell Young said Williams wrote the check as a gift after meeting her at the governor's mansion that night.
But Williams told a different story when he took the stand on Wednesday afternoon.
According to Williams, Maureen McDonnell asked Williams to write the check along with a separate loan at a meeting in her office on May 2, 2011.
Testimony wrapped up for the day shortly after Williams described the conversation he had with Maureen that day in her office.
Williams said he scheduled the meeting under the premise of discussing Anatabloc. He said the two did that but then the first lady changed the conversation.
According to Williams, Maureen told him that she and her husband were broke and considering filing for bankruptcy.
Williams said Maureen detailed how the couple's credit cards were maxed out and that they had received a high interest loan from a doctor in Virginia Beach to help pay for a real estate investment that wasn't working out.
Williams said she asked him for a $50,000 loan and another $15,000 to help pay the balance of her daughter's wedding. The businessman told jurors that the first lady offered him help in exchange.
'I could be helpful to you with this project,' Williams recalled Maureen saying. 'The governor says it's OK for me to help you, but I need you to help me,' Williams recounted.
After detailing the couple's financial troubles and asking for the money, Williams said he agreed to help them but wanted to ask Bob McDonnell's permission first.
'He's the breadwinner in the house and I'm not writing his wife a check without him knowing about it,' Williams explained to the jury.
Williams said he wrote the checks because he needed the governor's help.
'I needed credibility that comes with that office in Virginia,' Williams explained before reiterating that his relationship with the McDonnells was that of a business relationship.
Williams testimony for the day wrapped up just after 5:30 when the judge recessed court.
Afterwards, Williams declined to say anything to the mob of reporters waiting for him outside of the courthouse. His attorneys shoved off reporters and microphones and said their client would not talk because he was testifying in a trial. They did not say whether or not he would talk when his testimony concludes.
Bob McDonnell said little when leaving the courthouse on Wednesday, saying only that they had a long way to go before the trial was finished.
Court is scheduled to reconvene Thursday morning at 9:30 a.m. Reporter Nick Ochsner will be in the courtroom. Follow him on Twitter for updates @13NickOchsner.
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