Call it noblesse oblige, Jonnie Williams-style.
After hours of grueling testimony at the McDonnell corruption trial one recent day, the millionaire businessman who is the key prosecution witness strolled out of the courtroom after U.S. District Court Judge James Spencer called a recess.
Crossing the path of a reporter, a deeply tanned Williams paused immediately, made eye contact and graciously waved his arm to pass.
It was pure Williams: courtly, gentlemanly, ingratiating. The man who is the best, perhaps only, chance for former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen to get jail time works every moment at maintaining his finely-tuned persona of the rich and classy businessman.
Williams has immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony, which directly links his gift-giving to gaining the McDonnells’ support for his business. He ended his testimony as a government witness Aug. 5 and is expected to be called as a witness by the defense as the trial progresses.
Williams never loses control as he testifies in a soft voice that sounds like a Southern-fried version of an older Marlon Brando. Not once does he waver during four days on the stand, where he is by turns remorseful, sincere and evasive under intense questioning.
The media may concentrate on Maureen’s venality and on the governor’s cluelessness. But at the heart of it all is Williams, a man with a checkered business past and a soothing presence who gave the McDonnells more than $150,000 in gifts, cash and loans.
Despite a past that includes securities probes, lawsuits and bankruptcies, Williams still bought connections, such as what he called a “business relationship” with the McDonnells. He whipped out his credit cards often, logging at least $50,000 per month in entertainment spending. It was nothing for him to pick up a $5,000 bottle of Louis XIII cognac, as he did for the McDonnells and his fashion buddy Brad Kroenig at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York in December 2009.
Williams’ courtroom flaw is his ego. William Burck and Henry Asbill, lawyers for the McDonnells, used it to try to deflate the government’s case by letting Williams paint himself as a shifty and self-important con artist. Give Williams the opportunity, and he’ll go for hours tracing his rags-to-riches background from a used car lot in Fredericksburg to his entrepreneurial genius in eye care and other health ventures. He'll expound upon his genius at finding “anatabine,” a substance from tobacco with such exceptional curative powers that “it’s been compared to the discovery of antibiotics,” Williams says in court.
Williams is "basically a promoter,” his former co-defendant Victor Kashner told Style in a report on Williams’ companies last year. He’s a big name-dropper, too. Many of his contacts have some relationship to prestigious Johns Hopkins University, where Williams briefly attended graduate school after studying business at a small Rhode Island college.
One name is Dr. Frank O’Donnell, a former resident in ophthalmology at Hopkins, who was Williams’ business partner for years. The pair founded several firms that got into trouble. One was CME-SAT Inc. that made educational videos for doctors, according to Newsweek. Another was eye care company Lasersight. Their company Spectra Pharmaceuticals, a skin oil maker, was penalized by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for having a stock analyst falsely pump it up in a newsletter, according to Newsweek and a Style Weekly account last year.
Williams then went into the tobacco business in Petersburg. He came across anatabine, a tobacco-based alkaloid compound that became a key component of Anatabloc, his anti-inflammatory product.
Playing the Johns Hopkins card again, Williams recruited Dr. Paul Ladenson, an endocrinologist at the school, to do research for his firm, Star Scientific. But Ladenson and Star got in trouble for allegedly claiming that John Hopkins had done research that had been done privately for Williams’ company. Later, with Maureen McDonnell’s help, Williams managed to include John Hopkins scientists at events, such as a Healthcare Leaders Conference designed to impress state officials and convince researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia to research anatabine and Anatabloc.
Williams needed such vetting for anatabine to keep faltering Star Scientific afloat, and having big-name Virginia research schools involved was crucial. He also needed the influence of the governor’s office “to lend credibility,” he testified. But he seemed to get nowhere with the universities or with Dr. William Hazel, the state secretary of health and human resources, with whom McDonnell set up meetings with Williams. When Williams tried to drum up support at state labs and handed out sample Anatabloc pills, workers dubbed him the "Tic Tac man.” Hazel was the first to invent the moniker. His testimony Aug. 7 was damning for the prosecution. “To say I was skeptical would be an understatement,” he said.
McDonnell’s professional staff members were deeply worried about Williams, according to testimony, but Maureen McDonnell kept pushing him. Even Williams tried to dissuade her from buying stock in faltering Star Scientific, according to Williams’ testimony.
Defense lawyers note that Williams’ immunity from prosecution extends beyond the McDonnell affair to unrelated stock and tax matters involved Star, which has changed its name to Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals.
Undaunted, Williams gently cast himself as a do-gooder on the stand. “I would try to develop technologies that would change the marketplace and improve people’s lives,” he testified.