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Va. health director skeptical of Jonnie Williams

MATTHEW BARAKAT
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s health secretary testified Thursday that he was deeply skeptical of the medical claims made by former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams about his tobacco-based dietary supplement, but that he met with Williams anyway because then-Gov. Bob McDonnell asked him to.

Dr. Bill Hazel said he wasn’t sure at first why Williams wanted to meet with him, but McDonnell “did say Mr. Williams was a good friend of his wife.” Eventually, Williams sought state-sponsored studies of his product, Anatabloc, through Virginia’s public universities.

But Hazel was immediately skeptical of Williams and Anatabloc, derisively referring to Williams as the “Tic-Tac man” because his product resembled the popular mint.

“They were unbelievable to me,” said Hazel, a physician, about Williams’ claims about Anatabloc as a sort of wonder drug. “Something that was too good to be true, I probably would have heard of it before.”

Hazel indicated he had as little regard for Williams as he did for his product, which the health secretary at one point called “Anatabuse.” He said he once asked not to be seated next to Williams at a reception because “frankly, I thought it would be a very long evening.”

Hazel said he recalled talking about Anatabloc with the governor in only one conversation, in which he was asked to meet again with Williams.

Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, are charged with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and secret loans from Williams in exchange for promoting his products. Williams testified under immunity that he spent lavishly on the McDonnells only because he wanted their help.

Before Hazel took the stand, the woman who ran the governor’s mansion under Bob McDonnell testified Thursday that the governor doted on his wife and kissed her on the cheek frequently. Sarah Scarbrough said the pair “seemed like a very happy, in-love couple” and that she had told others that McDonnell “worshipped the ground Maureen walked on.”

Her testimony undercuts a claim by the defense that the marriage had deteriorated to the point that the couple rarely communicated, much less engaged in a criminal conspiracy.

Under cross-examination from the former governor’s attorney, though, Scarbrough acknowledged telling investigators that the marriage seemed to lack healthy communications and describing Maureen McDonnell as “sneaky” and frequently yelling at staff.

She also acknowledged telling investigators that the former governor appeared to be in denial about Maureen McDonnell’s “mental capacity,” but she did not elaborate.

Scarbrough’s testimony came a day after another former Maureen McDonnell staffer, Mary-Shea Sutherland, acknowledged describing Mrs. McDonnell as a “nutbag” who excitedly accepted the gifts that Williams lavished on her. Scarbrough called those gifts and the relationship between Maureen McDonnell and Williams inappropriate.

Scarbrough also testified about an August 2011 reception held at the governor’s mansion to launch Anatabloc. Scarbrough said Maureen McDonnell was the impetus behind the reception and that it was unusual to use the state-funded mansion to launch a product for a private company.

Under cross-examination, though, Scarbrough acknowledged that several receptions were held at the mansion over the years that specifically catered to private firms, including a dinner reception with Volkswagen, which has its U.S. headquarters in Virginia, the New York Stock Exchange and Forbes magazine.

Scarbrough also testified that Maureen McDonnell insisted on adding multiple guests connected to Williams’ company to a reception of health care leaders at the governor’s mansion in February 2012, and that Williams was given the opportunity to speak there. Hazel refused to use his department’s budget to pay for the guests added by the first lady, he and Scarbrough both testified.

“I was not excited to see these outsiders, who were not considered leaders, involved,” Hazel said.

Scarbrough testified that when law enforcement eventually interviewed Maureen McDonnell in February 2013 pertaining to the corruption investigation, she emerged from the long interview at the mansion angry and saying “that they were interrogating her and it wasn’t fair and they were trying to set her up.”

The jury also heard from Tucker Martin, who was Bob McDonnell’s communications director. He said he was relying on information from his boss when he told the press there was “no recreational use” of Williams’ Ferrari by McDonnell, who drove the sports car back to Richmond from a free vacation at the businessman’s Smith Mountain Lake house.

Albert Walden, who was a member of McDonnell’s security detail, testified a few minutes earlier that he and another officer were leaving lunch at a clubhouse when they saw McDonnell and his wife cruising up in the Ferrari with the top down.

Martin also testified about an email in which he expressed concern about a Star Scientific news release announcing the Anatabloc launch. The governor’s office had been asked to sign off on the release.

“I’m not saying it was an evil event or anything. It just didn’t come through the normal channels,” Martin said. He said he flagged the release for the governor’s attorneys, asking, “Are we sure we can do something like this?” and never gave it another thought.

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