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Virginia governor's wife hid gifts, says corruption trial witness

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[August 09, 2014]  By Gary Robertson
 RICHMOND Va. (Reuters) - The wife of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell was known among staffers for hiding gifts in the executive mansion, an aide to the governor testified during the first couple's corruption trial on Friday.

Matt Conrad, McDonnell's deputy chief of staff, said aides were worried that if some of the gifts hidden by first lady Maureen McDonnell were also intended for the governor they needed to be recorded on financial disclosure forms.

"I heard there were piles of gifts in closets," Conrad said on the tenth day of the trial in U.S. District Court.

McDonnell, a Republican, and his wife face 14 counts of corruption and bribery for allegedly accepting the gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. in exchange for supporting his former company Star Scientific, a dietary supplements maker.

Paul Perito, the former chairman and chief operating officer of Star Scientific, now known as Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals Inc, testified that he had no idea of Williams' largesse toward the McDonnells.

Perito said he knew that Williams was playing golf with the governor and having dinner with the first lady. He generally thought courting them was a good idea.

"If the governor of the state embraces the product ... it gives it credibility," Perito said.

He added that the governor told him he personally took Anatabloc, Star Scientific's main product, at a launch of the product at the governorís mansion in August 2011.

But Perito said he was "astounded" when Williams disclosed the full extent of his gift-giving and immediately called company lawyers.

In other testimony on Friday, John Piscitelli, a broker for Davenport & Co in Richmond, said the McDonnells asked him in February 2012 how to borrow money on shares of Williams' company that were being held for them.

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Williams said earlier in the trial that he planned to extend his shares in the company to the couple from which they could borrow funds.

The prosecutor asked the broker if it concerned him that a publicly traded company was holding shares for a high-ranking government official.

"It was puzzling," Piscitelli said.

The transaction never went through though, the broker added, saying the couple wanted to go another way.

To win a conviction, prosecutors must convince the jury that the governor took official acts to help Williams. Attorneys for the couple have argued that accepting the gifts and money was unseemly but not illegal.

If convicted, the McDonnells could face more than 20 years in prison and a large fine. McDonnell's four-year term as governor ended in January.

(Reporting by Gary Robertson; Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Curtis Skinner, Bill Trott, Eric Beech and Lisa Shumaker)

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