Former Virginia governor, wife go on trial on corruption charges

By Gary Robertson
Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell arrives with his legal team for his trial in Richmond
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Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell arrives with his legal team for his trial in Richmond, Virginia, July 28, 2014. REUTERS/Jay Westcott

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND Va. (Reuters) - A jury was selected on Monday to hear the federal corruption trial of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, with the couple charged with selling political favors for a loan, gifts and vacations.

McDonnell, 60, a Republican once mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, and the former Virginia first lady face a 14-count indictment alleging they accepted about $165,000 from a Virginia businessman in exchange for helping his dietary supplement company.

The McDonnells deny the charges, contending in court filings there is no evidence they agreed to use their power to aid the executive, Jonnie Williams, founder of dietary supplement company Star Scientific Inc, which last month changed its name to Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals Inc.

With the jury selection complete, opening arguments in the trial at U.S. District Court in Richmond were expected to begin on Tuesday.

The jury of eight men and four women was chosen from a pool of 150 people who arrived at court for screening on Monday. Three alternates - one woman and two men - were also selected.

The former governor arrived at court in a dark suit, with his wife wearing a black dress. Neither commented to reporters or spoke during court proceedings.

Prosecutors say the gifts to McDonnell and his wife ranged from an engraved $6,500 Rolex watch to wedding and engagement presents and money for the couple's daughters, and a $15,000 shopping spree for Maureen McDonnell.

Other favors included a $50,000 loan and golf outings and equipment, prosecutors say. Virginia governors are limited to one term and McDonnell left office in January.

Prosecutors say that in exchange for the gifts, McDonnell introduced the company to Virginia health officials. He also promoted Star's products, including suggesting to state universities that they conduct studies related to the products, the indictment said.

Much of the pre-trial legal wrangling centered on whether what the McDonnells did was illegal or just unseemly. Lawyers have clashed over the definition of official acts and whether the couple abused their offices or extended Williams routine courtesies.

Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor now with the Shulman Rogers law firm in Potomac, Maryland, said the McDonnells' lawyers would try to show that boosting state business was part of the governor's job.

"The government's response is: 'This goes beyond promotion and friendship. There clearly was reciprocity,'" he said.

U.S. District Judge James Spencer has ruled that the McDonnells could call character witnesses, but likely would limit them to five each.

If convicted, the McDonnells could face decades in prison and fines totaling more than $1 million. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

McDonnell supporters have estimated the trial would cost the couple more than $1 million. A defense fund had raised $254,000 through the end of June, with 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney contributing $10,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks political spending in the state.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh)