WASHINGTON — Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were charged Tuesday with illegally accepting gifts, luxury vacations, and large loans from a wealthy Richmond-area businessman who sought special treatment from state government.
The two were charged in connection with their relationship with dietary supplement executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
Authorities alleged that McDonnell and his wife received gifts from Williams again and again, lodging near constant requests for money, clothes, trips, golf accessories, and private plane rides.
In exchange, authorities alleged, the McDonnells worked in concert to lend the prestige of the governorship to Williams’s struggling company, a small former cigarette manufacturer that now sells dietary supplements.
McDonnell, 59, is the first governor to face criminal charges in a state that has prided itself on a history of relatively clean politics.
The threat of indictment had loomed over the final months of his four-year term, which ended with the inauguration of Governor Terry McAuliffe on Jan. 11. Though US Attorney Dana Boente had informed McDonnell in December that he intended to pursue charges, McDonnell made a final appeal to top Department of Justice officials in Washington and no action was taken until 10 days after he left office.
McDonnell’s indictment comes amid the General Assembly’s annual legislative session and is likely to accelerate efforts to overhaul the state’s ethics and gifts laws, long considered some of the most lax in the nation. McAuliffe and leading state lawmakers in both parties have said they support such changes.
The criminal prosecution also marks a stunning crash for a politician who was considered for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 2012.
McDonnell presided over a state with declining unemployment and brightening state finances. Even his political opponents admired his civil temperament, and he had faced no challenges to his ethics or character before the relationship with Williams emerged.
McDonnell first apologized for his interactions with Williams in July, paying back the chief executive’s $50,000 loan to his wife, as well as a $70,000 loan made to a small business McDonnell owns with his sister.
But he has insisted he did not abuse his office. Star Scientific, after all, received no state grants, contracts, or economic incentives and its employees got no state appointments.
The governor’s career began to quietly fray more than a year ago in the most mundane of ways: a tip to a state fraud hotline alleging that the chef at the state’s executive mansion was pilfering food from the kitchen. When questioned by authorities, chef Todd Schneider offered information about potentially more serious wrongdoing in the mansion.
In March 2012, Schneider handed over documents that showed Williams paid $15,000 for the catering at the 2011 wedding of McDonnell’s daughter. McDonnell had not disclosed the gift, later saying there was no need because the money was a wedding present to his daughter and state law requires only elected officials, not their family members, to annually disclose gifts.
But the chef also provided evidence that it was McDonnell himself who had signed the catering contract, assuming financial responsibility for the event. A $3,500 refund check from the catering company had gone to McDonnell’s wife Maureen, not Williams or to the young couple.
By November 2012, the state’s attorney general asked a prosecutor to conduct a full review of McDonnell’s annual financial disclosures.