By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND Va (Reuters) - The businessman at the heart of a corruption trial involving former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, testified on Wednesday he helped them out with gifts and loans strictly for the benefit of his dietary supplement company.
"This was a business relationship," Jonnie Williams, a key prosecution witness told a packed federal courtroom in Richmond, Virginia.
Williams said he took Maureen McDonnell on a $20,000 New York shopping spree, lent the couple large amounts of money, and paid for the wedding reception of one of their daughters in exchange for the couple using their personal and political prestige to advance his company.
Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry, Williams, who was granted immunity in return for his testimony, said the governor and his wife fully understood the arrangement they were in.
McDonnell, 60, and his wife have pleaded not guilty to 14 counts of corruption and bribery for allegedly taking more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Williams in exchange for promoting his company, Star Scientific Inc, where he was then chief executive. The company has since changed its name to Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals.
The McDonnells have contended in court filings there is no evidence they agreed to use their power to aid Williams. The former Republican governor, who left office in January at the end of his four-year term, had been mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate before the scandal erupted.
If convicted, the couple face more than 20 years in prison and a large fine.
During opening statements on Tuesday, the defense argued that Maureen McDonnell had a crush on Williams, saying Williams was known as "Maureen’s favorite playmate."
The defense added that the McDonnells were incapable of carrying out a conspiracy because they were barely on speaking terms.
Williams said on Wednesday, however, that he met with Maureen McDonnell at the governor’s mansion in May 2011, where she told him they did not have enough income from rental properties in Virginia Beach and that their credit cards were maxed out.
"She became very emotional at that point," Williams said.
He said Maureen McDonnell eventually told him she would help his company and she had the governor's approval to do it.
She later asked him for a $50,000 loan and for $15,000 to pay for her daughter’s wedding reception, Williams said. He said he would agree only if her husband knew it.
He testified that he later called the governor and told him about the money he was to provide.
"He said, 'Thank you,'" Williams said.
The trial is set to resume on Thursday with more testimony from Williams, where he is likely to undergo a withering cross-examination from defense attorneys for the McDonnells.
(Editing by Curtis Skinner and Peter Cooney)