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October 24, 2014

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Spielberg encounter described at ex-governor trial

RICHMOND, Va. — The wealthy businessman who showered former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife with thousands of dollars in gifts and loans tried to impress a cardiologist by having the then-first lady introduce him to movie director Steven Spielberg, the doctor testified Tuesday.

Dr. George Vetrovec said former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams was trying to interest him in conducting research on the company's signature product, the tobacco-derived anti-inflammatory Anatabloc, when the encounter occurred in October 2011. Vetrovec, who works at Virginia Commonwealth University's medical school, said he met Williams at the school to discuss the idea.

Williams told Vetrovec that "the governor's wife makes really good cookies and we're going over there," the doctor testified. When they arrived at the Executive Mansion, a reception was being held to honor Spielberg for filming the movie "Lincoln" in the Richmond area. Maureen McDonnell, at Williams' request, introduced Vetrovec to the filmmaker, he testified.

"This is the most unusual event you can imagine," Vetrovec said. "You just never know what's going to happen every day when you get up."

Bob McDonnell's attorney, Henry Asbill, asked Vetrovec if he thought Williams was trying to impress him.

"I guess so," Vetrovec said.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell are charged in a 14-count indictment with accepting more than $165,000 in designer apparel, free vacations, golf outings and secret loans from Williams in exchange for helping him promote his company's products, primarily Anatabloc.

Vetrovec testified that before meeting Spielberg, he once bumped into Williams at the Atlanta airport. After they spoke briefly, Vetrovec said he was paged by an airline representative who told him Williams had upgraded his flight to first class.

The doctor testified that he was genuinely interested in researching Anatabloc but never learned from Star Scientific how it would be funded. Williams wanted funding from a state tobacco commission for either VCU or the University of Virginia to conduct the studies. The commission never received an application.

Former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, now a private lawyer who represented Williams in his preliminary bid for state-backed research, testified that he suggested an alternative: a direct state budget appropriation from the governor's office. He outlined for Star Scientific a number of steps it should take to seek funding, including meeting with the governor, but that meeting never occurred because neither university committed to the project.

The jury also heard from Virginia State Police investigator Charles Hagan, who interviewed Maureen McDonnell in February 2013. Hagan said he questioned her about $50,000 she had received from Williams. Maureen McDonnell told him it was a personal loan, that she signed a promissory note and was making payments. Prosecutors have said there was no paperwork and no payments had been made at that time.

Hagan also said Maureen McDonnell told him her husband met Williams many years ago, just after getting out of the Army. Williams, who testified under immunity, said previously that he met McDonnell in 2009 during the gubernatorial campaign.

Williams' brother, Donnie, testified that he did a lot of repair work at the McDonnells' private home. He said Jonnie asked him to do the work and paid for it, although he said Maureen McDonnell offered to pay several times. He said that after the investigation became public, Maureen McDonnell demanded an invoice and eventually sent him a check for $1,685.50.

Virginia Beach Mayor William Sessoms, president of TowneBank, testified about refinancing one of the two loans the bank carried on two beach vacation rental properties owned by McDonnell and his sister. Rental income wasn't sufficient to cover the debt, Sessoms said, resulting in late fees 47 times over about five years. Sessoms acknowledged that a financial statement McDonnell submitted to support the $722,202 refinance agreement did not show any loans from Williams.

A juror was dismissed on day 12 of the trial. U.S. District Judge James Spencer gave no explanation for why, but at the end of the day he lectured the jury about not talking to anyone about the case or viewing any news stories about it.

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