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McDonnell fights corruption charges, goes after star witness, 'rickety' case

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FILE: Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014: Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and wife Maureen at a news conference in Richmond, Va. (AP)

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is fighting back against federal corruption charges, arguing that prosecutors have a “rickety” case that lacks legal standing and hangs on a questionable witness with a criminal history. Further, his attorneys claim McDonnell's Democratic predecessor engaged in similar activity.

McDonnell’s defense was laid out Wednesday in two court motions from his high-powered Washington legal team, following a federal indictment charging the former Republican lawmaker and wife Maureen with 14 counts of corruption. 

Prosecutors say the couple accepted gifts, vacations and loans from executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., who was seeking special treatment from the state for his fledgling nutritional supplements company Star Scientific Inc.

“Bob McDonnell is an innocent man,” the defense argued in the opening line of the documents. “He never entered into a legal agreement with Mr. Jonnie Williams or Star Scientific, nor did he ever promise to provide them any official benefits.”

The 43-page indictment reveals the couple’s financial strains and the extent of the McDonnell-Williams relationship, which started in 2009 when McDonnell was campaigning for governor and using Williams’ private jet. It escalated in December 2010 when Williams offered to buy the former Virginia first lady an Oscar de la Renta gown for her husband’s inauguration.

“We are broke,” Maureen McDonnell said in an email to a staffer who advised her not to accept the gown offer.

However, about a year later, Williams took Maureen McDonnell on a New York City shopping spree in which he spent about $10,999 at Oscar de la Renta, $5,685 at Louis Vuitton and $2,604 at Bergdorf Goodman, according to the indictment. 

In exchange for the gifts, including a Rolex for the governor and $15,000 to cater a 2011 McDonnell daughter wedding reception, Williams gained access to the governor and his world, which in part included sitting next him at a New York dinner and launching a Star Scientific product in August 2011 at the governor’s mansion, according to court documents.

In July, McDonnell said he repaid more than $120,000 that Williams had given his wife and a real estate business McDonnell and his sister owned, while maintaining he had done nothing illegal, as he continued to do this week.

 “We did not violate the law, and I will use every available resource and advocate I have for as long as it takes to fight these false allegations,” he said Tuesday after the announcement of the indictment, which included charges of wire fraud and giving false statements.

The multi-pronged defense case argues the gifts didn’t amount to bribes because McDonnell, as an elected official, never accepted them in exchange for agreeing to or performing an “official act.”

“Not everything a public official does to benefit a donor is an ‘official act’ … or every photo-op would be a crime,” the lawyers wrote.

They also argued that Democrat Tim Kaine, a U.S. senator from Virginia who preceded McDonnell as governor, accepted thousands of dollars in gifts “while often taking action to help those benefactors.”

Among the gifts that Kaine received was an $18,000 Caribbean vacation from a wealthy donor.

However, the defense team’s most forceful strategy appears to be its attack on the credibility of the prosecution’s star witness, McDonnell’s executive chef, Todd Schneider.

In 2012, Schneider provided federal investigators with such evidence as a copy of William’s $15,000 check to cover the wedding food and drinks, amid a joint state-federal investigation into whether he was pilfering governor's mansion food.

Schneider pleaded no contest to two counts of embezzlement in the case and was order to pay $2,300 to cover the cost of the food.

In 2000, he was found guilty of petty-larceny embezzlement, according to multiple news reports.

McDonnell lawyers say the “rickety legal foundation” of the prosecution’s case is based largely on “immunized testimony purchased with under-the-table promises to a key witness who would otherwise face criminal liability and massive financial liabilities.”

McDonnell, who left office earlier this month on term limits, is being represented by the firms Holland & Knight and Jones Day. The nonprofit, Virginia-based political group Restoration Fund is raising money for McDonnell’s legal defense.

The federal investigation that preceded the charges also overshadowed the final months in office for the once-rising star of the Republican Party as well as the state’s 2013 gubernatorial race, won in November by Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Williams is no longer the company's chief executive officer.

A McDonnell spokesman in July broke down the $124,115.17 in repayments, including principal and interest, as $52,278.17 for a personal loan Williams made to Maureen McDonnell in 2011 and $71,837 for two loans to the MoBo Real Estate Partners.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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