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Former Va. Gov. McDonnell, wife plead not guilty

Published: Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 12:56 p.m. CDT

RICHMOND, Va. — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges that they traded their influence for tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans, and both will be allowed to remain free until their trial.

"It's not guilty, your honor," McDonnell said when asked his plea.

U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer set a July 28 start for a jury trial. The proceedings are expected to last five to six weeks.

An hour before pleading not guilty, the McDonnells were released on their own recognizance Friday but were ordered by U.S. Magistrate Judge David Novak not to leave the country. The former governor's lawyer, John Brownlee, told Novak the defendants already have surrendered their passports.

The McDonnells were indicted on 14 counts Tuesday after a lengthy federal investigation of his relationship with a former CEO of a dietary supplement maker

Both judges issued strong warnings against leaking sensitive information to the media. Much of the details of the government's case against McDonnell had long been made public through months of news stories based on anonymous sources

"This case is going to be tried in the courtroom; it is not going to be tried in the media," Novak said. "The gamesmanship with the media ends now."

Bob and Maureen McDonnell often held hands as they made their way through the courthouse. Both hearings were packed with family, supporters and the media. Supporters include prominent Republican lawmakers, like House Speaker William J. Howell and House Majority Leader Kirk Cox.

At the arraignment, Maureen McDonnell said she was currently taking prescription medication for "concentration and anxiety."

Federal prosecutors allege the McDonnells accepted more than $165,000 worth of loans and gifts from Jonnie Williams, the former head of Star Scientific Inc. Prosecutors say that in return, the McDonnells improperly helped Williams promote his company's products.

The investigation crippled the chances of attaining higher office for McDonnell, once a rising star in the Republican Party who had even been considered a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012. He has apologized for what he describes as bad judgment and has said he repaid about $120,000 in gifts and loans. But he has steadfastly denied breaking any laws.

The indictment handed down Tuesday accuses the couple of accepting gifts such as shopping sprees for designer clothes and accessories, a Rolex watch, $15,000 in catering expenses for a daughter's wedding, golf outings and a lake-house vacation stay that included use of Williams' Ferrari. McDonnell also received $120,000 in loans for family real estate ventures, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors said the couple in turn promoted Star Scientific's products and gave special treatment to Williams, including arranging for him to meet a state health official. The couple also opened up the Executive Mansion for a launch party for one of the company's signature products.

The McDonnells and their lawyers say the couple did nothing for Star Scientific that they wouldn't do for any other Virginia company. The former governor's lawyers say in court papers that the gifts weren't bribes because McDonnell never gave Williams anything that wasn't a routine courtesy doled out by every politician, from the president on down.

In court records, the defense has accused prosecutors of using "deceitful practices" to build its case while ignoring evidence that could potentially exonerate the McDonnells.

The charges came 10 days after McDonnell, limited by the Virginia Constitution to a single four-year term, left office.

If convicted, the McDonnells could face a long stretch in prison. Twelve of the charges are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, two by up to 30 years. Potential fines range from $250,000 to $1 million.

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