The fall of the McDonnell family (the governor’s wife, Maureen, stood trial with him; her appeal is pending before the Fourth Circuit) had its roots in the financial collapse of 2008. McDonnell, an Army veteran and former Virginia attorney general, was bit wealthy when he was elected governor in 2009. After the crash, his family real-estate holdings had become a monthly cash drain. Bankruptcy seems to have been a real possibility.
But into his life, and Maureen’s, came an angel named Jonnie Williams, owner of a nutritional-supplement firm called Star Scientific. At their first social encounter, Williams dazzled the McDonnells, ordering a $5,000 bottle of cognac and offering to speak to his friend Oscar de la Renta about a custom inaugural gown for Maureen.
They were saved. Eventually the McDonnells arranged $100,000 in personal and family-business loans, and another $15,000 loan to pay the bills for their daughter’s wedding. But Williams’s help became more indulgence than financial rescue. The ATM was working; the McDonnells enthusiastically punched in the PIN: a $20,000 Manhattan shopping spree for Maureen; an all-expense-paid family vacation in the Virginia mountains (complete with a borrowed Ferrari for the governor to drive back to the Mansion); expensive golf and pro-shop sprees at a toney Richmond club; a $6000-plus engraved Rolex for Bob. The gifts were not illegal under Virginia law, but many also were not disclosed, as the law required.
Of course, Williams had his own needs. Star Scientific had developed a substance called Anatabloc, made from tobacco, that it believed would reduce inflammation in humans—and, thus, might be a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Getting federal approval for a new drug requires expensive clinical tests, which the company could not fund.
Williams wanted three things: First, clinical trials at the medical schools of two prestigious Virginia state universities, the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University; second, funds for the trials from the state’s Tobacco Board; and, third, coverage of Anatabloc (as a nutritional supplement until FDA approval) by the state’s employee health-insurance plan.
The McDonnells did their best to oblige. They instructed state officials to meet with Williams to discuss the possibility of testing and coverage; they contacted governor’s staff members to push them to encourage the testing proposal; they invited university officials to events at the Governor’s Mansion to hear a pitch from Williams; and, finally, they sponsored an official “product launch” for Anatabloc at the Virginia Governor’s Mansion—an event arranged by state employees at which each attendee received a sample of the compound.
Nothing came of the testing plan, and eventually the whole business came to light; in 2014, Bob McDonnell was convicted by a federal jury of defrauding the people of Virginia of his “honest services,” and of using “official right” to extort property. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Maureen’s sentence was a year and a day.