Ex-McDonnell aide testifies of concerns over Rolex

August 5, 2014 - 6:35 PM

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — An aide who dispensed legal and policy advice to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell testified Tuesday that he and other administration officials worried about the propriety of a product launch event at the governor's mansion and about a Rolex watch that McDonnell received from his wife through a wealthy benefactor.

The mansion event is one of the benefits that former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams received and the Rolex is one of the gifts McDonnell got in return, prosecutors allege in the public corruption case against the former governor and his wife, Maureen. The McDonnells are charged in 14-count indictment with promoting Williams' products in exchange for $165,000 in gifts and secret loans.

Jasen Eige, who was McDonnell's chief counsel and policy adviser, said he and other top aides were concerned when they learned about Maureen McDonnell's plan to host the official launch of Williams' signature product Anatabloc at the mansion in August 2011.

"We didn't think that was appropriate use of state property," Eige said.

He said he thought the event was toned down to just a luncheon so that Williams could distribute planning grant funds to state medical school researchers, which allayed his concerns. The governor's aides also edited a Star Scientific press release about the event to remove mentions of the governor and first lady, he testified, because they did not want it to look like McDonnell was pitching a particular product — although "there is no bright-line rule in Virginia" prohibiting such an endorsement.

Eige and Tucker Martin, who was McDonnell's communications director, also aired their concerns about public perception when the then-governor showed up at a meeting wearing the Rolex. McDonnell told them his wife had given it to him for Christmas. Eige said he agreed when Martin told their boss he probably shouldn't be wearing it. McDonnell said he didn't think it was real, but Martin said that didn't matter.

According to Eige, he never saw McDonnell wear the watch again. He only learned later that Williams had paid for it. Williams testified previously that Maureen McDonnell asked him to buy the watch.

Eige also testified about receiving an email from Maureen McDonnell telling him to call Williams because researchers at two Virginia universities weren't returning their calls after the Star executive doled out $200,000 in planning grants at the launch event. He said he didn't think it was appropriate for the governor's staff to get involved in the issue.

"Frankly, I was kind of hoping it would go away," he said.

He called Williams' attorney, former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, and asked him to talk to Williams. Nothing else happened, he said.

Molly Huffstetler, a senior adviser to the state health secretary, testified that she met with Maureen McDonnell and Williams at the request of the governor. She said Williams did most of the talking. Her notes from the meeting indicated that Williams said a state tobacco commission was going to finance a study of Anatabloc.

The same day, she sent Williams an email thanking him for his time and pledging "to continue to work alongside the first Lady as we identify how best to move forward."

Bob McDonnell's attorney, Henry Asbill, asked Huffstetler if she would describe that message as "basically a blow-off email."

"That's probably fair," said Huffstetler, adding that she never intended to follow up — and that neither she nor anyone in her office ever did.

The jury also heard from Dr. John Clore, vice president of clinical research at the Medical College of Virginia. He said that in 2011, he received a phone call from Johns Hopkins medical researcher Dr. Paul Ladenson about the potential health benefits of anatabine, the tobacco-derived compound that is the main ingredient in Anatabloc. Clore emailed several colleagues about the call, writing that Williams was a "very good friend" of the governor and that McDonnell wanted to sponsor clinical trials of Anatabloc.

Clore later attended the product launch, where Williams handed him a $25,000 check made out to MCV to begin planning to apply for research funding. It was one of eight $25,000 checks Williams handed out to researchers at that event, Williams testified previously.

Clore said his plans to seeking funding never went anywhere because the Star subsidiary serving as the conduit — Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals — quit communicating.

According to Clore, Bob McDonnell spoke at the product launch event, which prosecutors have also listed as an "official act" the former governor and his wife performed for Williams. Clore said his impression was that it was an official government event.