By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND Va. (Reuters) - Former Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell took the witness stand in his own defense on Wednesday and denied giving any special treatment to the company at the heart of the bribery and corruption charges against him and his wife.
McDonnell characterized his treatment of the company, Star Scientific Inc, and its CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. as "nothing at all special, other than what I was supposed to do.”
McDonnell and his wife Maureen have been charged with 14 counts of bribery and fraud for allegedly accepting more than $165,000 in loans and gifts from Williams to promote the company’s signature product, Anatabloc.
During the trial, now in its fourth week, prosecutors have said the couple was desperate for money and in deep trouble financially, turning to Williams to help them out.
To prove its case against the McDonnells, the government must convince the jury that the couple – and specifically, the former governor – took “official acts” to help Williams and Star Scientific. The company has since changed its name to Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals.
Showing no visible sign of nervousness, McDonnell testified that he and his administration provided little for the company, other than offer access to some government officials.
Of a controversial mansion event that coincided with the launch of Anatabloc, an anti-inflammatory, McDonnell played down his own role.
“The governor was there for a check presentation,” he said, referring to about $200,000 in checks that Williams handed to researchers and institutions at the event.
Under questioning from lead defense attorney Henry Asbill, McDonnell said he never held a press conference for Williams, or visited his company or made an announcement in its behalf.
The defense has based much of its case on the premise that the former governor’s marriage was crumbling, and that he and his wife weren’t even talking to each other.
The breakup of the marriage precluded the couple from conspiring with each other to help Williams or Star Scientific, defense attorneys have said.
A number of witnesses have described Maureen McDonnell as a difficult person who was prone to tantrums and frequently yelled at her staff as Virginia’s first lady.
Asbill said he would be asking McDonnell about his marriage when the former governor resumes his testimony on Thursday.
If the couple is convicted on all charges, they could each be sentenced to 20 years in prison.
McDonnell's four-year term as governor ended in January. He was not eligible for re-election under Virginia’s one-term rule.
(Reporting by Gary Robertson; Editing by Frank McGurty, Eric Beech and Eric Walsh)