By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va., Jan 24 (Reuters) - Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife pleaded not guilty to federal bribery charges on Friday and were released on their own recognizance until trial.
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were charged this week in a 14-count indictment with accepting bribes from the chief executive of a dietary supplements maker, Star Scientific Inc.
The pair, married 37 years, appeared briefly in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Virginia on Friday. Maureen McDonnell stopped to kiss several members of her family who were seated in the courtroom when she entered, while her husband briefly smiled at people in the gallery.
McDonnell left office this month and was once seen as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016. He and his wife are charged with accepting gifts that included cash, golf fees and clothing, the grand jury indictment said. In exchange, they arranged for Star Scientific executives to meet government officials who could help their business, it said.
If convicted, the McDonnells, both 59, could face decades in prison and fines totaling well over $1 million.
U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer said their trial would begin on July 28. Prosecutors and defense attorneys estimated it would run for five to six weeks.
The indictment portrays McDonnell and his wife, a former cheerleader for the National Football League’s Washington Redskins, as short on money and unable to pay the bills for beachfront houses they owned but were renting out.
After the indictment was filed on Tuesday, the former governor vowed in a statement to “use every available resource and advocate I have for as long as it takes to fight these false allegations.”
But the judge cautioned both sides not to battle it out in public, saying, “This will not be a trial by press conference or press release.”
The McDonnells’ relationship with Star Scientific founder and Chief Executive Jonnie Williams began when Williams lent his private jet to the candidate during his 2009 campaign for governor, the indictment said.
The McDonnells got more than $135,000 in direct payments as gifts and loans, as well as thousands of dollars more in golf outings, the indictment said.
Gifts to the couple and their family ranged from a $6,500 Rolex watch for McDonnell, to wedding and engagement presents and money for his daughters and a $15,000 shopping spree for the first lady.
The indictment also alleges the couple attempted to conceal the gifts from Williams and failed to disclose loans from him.
McDonnell said in July he had repaid $120,000 in loans from Williams, who resigned last month as Star Scientific’s CEO. Williams has not been charged with any wrongdoing in the case.
Current Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has imposed a $100 limit on gifts to him, his family or members of his administration.