The people Bob McDonnell once governed will decide his fate

Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, in 2013. They now stand trial for federal corruption charges, with separate teams of lawyers.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

RICHMOND, Va. — Their faces solemn, the jurors who will decide the fate of the man they have likely never seen in person before today but once called their governor, rose in the stately Richmond courtroom to take an oath.

As they stood, former Gov. Bob McDonnell looked upon the unfamiliar faces of people he once led who will soon determine the course of the rest of his life.

Out of more than 100 potential jurors who had entered the room eight hours earlier on Monday, these were the chosen ones.

Just hours before, McDonnell and his wife Maureen arrived — separately — for their federal corruption trial at the U.S. Eastern District Court in Richmond.

A black skirt suit-clad Maureen McDonnell came with her daughters and their husbands in tow, smiling as she greeted people she knew on the seventh floor of the courthouse, almost as if lawyers and reporters weren’t watching her every move.

Silver-haired Bob McDonnell stepped off the elevator onto the seventh floor soon after, his weary eyes reflecting the toll the last year of his life has taken.

Barely one year ago, the Republican governor found himself on the who’s who list of possible GOP candidates for president in 2016. Now, McDonnell, who served as an attorney general fighting for the U.S. Constitution and Constitution of Virginia before he became governor, is the defendant facing 14 counts of federal corruption in USA vs. Bob McDonnell and Maureen McDonnell.

Or, as it’s filed in the court system, 314CR12.

In the seventh floor hallway, McDonnell embraced friends with warm bear hugs. He greeted his wife with little more than an almost obligatory side hug. The former governor had requested they be tried separately, but that request had been denied.

“Come on boss, let’s go,” one of McDonnell’s legal assistants said as genially as possible, gently ushering the former governor towards the courtroom.

They may have only been feet away as they seated themselves in the courtroom, but the McDonnells looked worlds apart as their two teams of lawyers sat between them.

Seated directly behind them in the courtroom, their daughters and their sons-in-law — most of whom will be called on to testify — whispered amongst themselves.

They aren’t on trial. But it was revelations that wealthy businessman Jonnie Williams of Star Scientific had paid for the catering bill at one of their weddings that sparked the momentum that led to this day when Virginia’s highest elected official, his family and Virginia politics itself stood trial.

McDonnell and his wife face 14 counts of federal corruption for their relationship with Williams that, according to prosecutors in a scathing indictment, benefited the financially struggling first family personally in exchange for the promotion of the businessman’s tobacco-turned pharmaceutical company. The charges include one count of conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud; three counts of honest-services wire fraud; one count of conspiracy to obtain property under color of official right; six counts of obtaining property under color of official right; and one count of making false statements to a federal credit union.

Bob McDonnell also faces one count of making a false statement to a financial institution, while Maureen McDonnell is also charged with one count obstruction of an official proceeding.

The indictment pins far more of the alleged requests for personal gain — things like plane tickets for one of the girls’ bachelorette parties, and a $10,000 Manhattan shopping splurge — on the former first lady than the former governor. But it was Bob McDonnell whom Virginians elected governor in November 2009 with nearly 59 percent of the vote, not his wife.

Just after 10 a.m., the room became still as potential juror after potential juror strode into the courtroom, their uncertain and inquisitive eyes glimpsing, most of them for the first time in person, the man they until six months ago called their governor.

As the hours dragged on, Judge James Spencer ticked off his list of questions for all of the jurors — things like, are you or has anyone in your family been in law enforcement? Have you or someone in your family ever run for elected office? He left out any questions about political leanings.

As 5 p.m. rolled around, the judge and lawyers reached their pool of the still more than 100 people from which to find 12. The room was still as the court clerk randomly selected 12 names. One by one, potential jurors walked from their bench to the juror box. And one by one, lawyers finagled with names, replacing them round after round until, finally around 6:20 p.m., they agreed on 12 jurors and four alternates.

Over the next four or more weeks, some of the state’s top officials will testify — including former attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, Health and Human Services Secretary Bill Hazel and former Gov. Doug Wilder.

They, however, won’t be the ones deciding the case.

After Spencer dismissed those who hadn’t been selected, the remaining 16 stood to take an oath, a certain finality to the fact they were still in the room. The judge asked if they will faithfully and impartially deliver a verdict for Bob and Maureen McDonnell.

They responded in unison, “we will.”

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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