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Gov's fractured friendship grew from common past

Friday - 8/16/2013, 5:56pm  ET

FILE - This May 5, 2011 file photo provided by the office of the Governor of Virginia shows Jonnie Williams left, and Maureen McDonnell during a reception for a NASCAR race at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, Va. In an interview with The Associated Presson Monday, Aug. 12, Gov. Bob McDonnell said he had returned gifts given to him and his family by Williams, the multimillionaire head of a struggling nutritional supplements company. McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell counted Williams as a personal friend and welcome face at Virginia’s Executive Mansion until a federal probe soured the relationship. (AP Photo/Office of the Governor of Virginia, Michele White, File)

BOB LEWIS
AP Political Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) -- For four years, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and Gov. Bob McDonnell shared a friendship that afforded Williams access to the pinnacle of Virginia political power and provided McDonnell and his family a taste of the good life the multimillionaire corporate executive loved to flaunt.

That friendship is now strained -- if not dead -- as a federal criminal investigation into their relationship pushes them in conflicting directions, creating an election-year scandal that has consumed the final months of the governor's term.

"We had a very positive relationship for three or four years," a somber McDonnell told The Associated Press this week in one of the most frank and open public discussions he has held yet on the subject. "Right now, we're just in a different situation."

Williams, through his attorney, Jerry W. Kilgore, declined to be interviewed for this story.

The men became friends in 2009 and 2010 when Williams' then-obscure nutritional supplement-making company, Star Scientific Inc., contributed $108,448 in corporate jet travel to McDonnell's gubernatorial campaign and political action committee. Williams became even more generous with personal gifts or loans to the McDonnell family that topped $145,000, including five-figure checks to two daughters for their weddings and a $6,500 Rolex watch engraved for the "71st Governor of Virginia."

McDonnell, who carefully couched his relationship with Williams in the past tense during the AP interview, said the enterprising venture capitalist had been his kind of guy: a self-made man from working-class stock who, like the governor, got his start in the health care services and supplies field. Both are in their late 50s. They discovered they had even both honeymooned in the same spot, Bar Harbor, Maine.

"I admire people who are entrepreneurial, who are finding ways to create opportunities in Virginia and that's one of the reasons that when I first met him back in '09 (or) '10 that we established a friendship," McDonnell said. "We both had big families. He had four kids, I had five.

"We had interesting early discussions about the field of health care and about our families," he said.

The McDonnell and Williams families grew quite close. Williams and his wife, Celeste, were familiar faces at official Executive Mansion functions and, even more important, personal mansion guests of the governor and first lady Maureen McDonnell. They were on a select list of guests for the private 2011 wedding of Cailin McDonnell and gave her a $15,000 check as a gift. Williams gave Cailin's sister Jeanine a $10,000 check before her wedding this spring. Maureen McDonnell was Williams' guest on a New York City shopping spree, and she persuaded him to buy the governor the expensive timepiece, The Washington Post reported.

With the friendship in full bloom, Star Scientific representatives were lobbying senior McDonnell administration officials to include the company's anti-inflammatory supplement, Anatabloc, in every state employee's basic health benefits package. The request was denied, and a review by Democratic former Attorney General Anthony Troy found no evidence that either Williams or the company received any benefit, appointment, or other special treatment from state government during McDonnell's term.

When the FBI began interrogating people close to McDonnell in an ongoing inquiry into whether he used the authority of his office to benefit Williams or his company, however, the friendship began to fray. Then this month, it became clear that it had snapped.

In July, McDonnell publicly apologized for accepting Williams' undisclosed largesse and announced he was returning all tangible gifts and repaying the monetary gifts and loans.

"I know who my friends are, and I have been blessed over the last 22 years to have a lot of great friends," he said.

Earlier this month, Williams and his company announced their cooperation with federal authorities and said they expected to avoid criminal charges.

Citing advice from his private legal team, McDonnell would not discuss any aspect of the investigation with the AP.

Rich Galen, a spokesman for the governor who is working with McDonnell's lawyers, was not so reticent.

"Apparently, the U.S. government has given Star Scientific a free pass for unspecified misdeeds in return for the testimony of Jonnie Williams," he said in response to word that Williams and his company were cooperating witnesses.

"Governor Bob McDonnell has had a 37-year unblemished record of military and civilian government service. Jonnie Williams has been in trouble with government entities since the earliest days of his business career," Galen said in an email statement first shared with The Virginian-Pilot newspaper last weekend.

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