Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, alongside his wife Maureen, at a news conference in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The Washington metropolitan area is no stranger to scandal. District and Maryland residents saw a parade of their top elected officials plead guilty to criminal misconduct in recent years, and now it’s Virginia’s turn in the spotlight. On Jan. 21 federal prosecutors filed a 14-count indictment against former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, accusing the couple of illegally accepting payments, gifts and loans in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement company.

Unlike a number of other embattled local politicos, the McDonnells are fighting back. With big-name Washington-area white-collar defense lawyers behind them, the McDonnells immediately denounced what they called “unjust overreach” by prosecutors.

“We will face these false allegations with strength and firm resolve,” McDonnell, a Republican, told reporters.

In court papers filed on Jan. 21, Robert McDonnell’s lawyers — John Brownlee of Holland & Knight and Henry “Hank” Asbill of Jones Day — offered hints of their defense strategy. They said prosecutors were applying a legal theory of bribery that, if “applied neutrally,” would implicate President Barack Obama and McDonnell’s Democratic predecessor, Tim Kaine.

“Not everything a public official does to benefit a donor is an ‘official act,’” Brownlee and Asbill wrote. If so, “every photo op would be a crime.”

The McDonnells pleaded not guilty on Jan. 24 before U.S. District Judge James Spencer in Richmond.

The case is being prosecuted jointly by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia and the U.S. Department of Justice. The indictment detailed the payments, gifts and loans in excess of $100,000 the McDonnells allegedly received in exchange for helping Jonnie Williams, chief executive officer of Star Scientific Inc. The gifts included clothes, golf outings, cellphones and a silver Rolex watch engraved on the back with “71st Governor of Virginia.”

Here’s a look at the lead defenders and prosecutors in the case against the McDonnells:

Robert McDonnell: John Brownlee, Holland & Knight; Henry “Hank” Asbill, Jones Day

Brownlee brings prosecutorial chops to McDonnell’s defense team, having served as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia from 2001 to 2008 and an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington from 1997 to 2001.

In 2007 Brownlee made headlines after landing on a list of U.S. attorneys that Michael Elston, a top lawyer in the front office of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, recommended for firing. Brownlee kept his job, but nine other U.S. attorneys were terminated. Elston and Gonzales faced criticism over the U.S. attorney firings.

Brownlee, who now leads Holland & Knight’s national white-collar defense practice, has represented clients in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigations, False Claims Act cases and securities fraud.

Asbill is a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Washington, starting his career as a public defender in Washington. He helped run small firm Asbill Moffitt & Boss before making the jump in 2004 to Cozen O’Connor and the now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf before joining Jones Day in 2010.

Notable clients have included former AOL Inc. executive Kent Wakeford, who was cleared of accounting fraud and other criminal and civil charges in 2007 and 2008, as well as the late pop star Michael Jackson.

A 2008 NLJ article about the Wakeford case highlighted Asbill’s strength in direct examination and cross-examination, including his unusual penchant for putting clients on the stand.

“Ultimately, a white-collar defendant must be able (through preparation) and willing (through trust in his attorney) to give up control on the stand,” Asbill and Jones Day partner Kerri Ruttenberg wrote in a 2011 NLJ opinion article about taking the stand. “He must answer unanticipated questions and not answer ones that are not posed.”

Maureen McDonnell: William Burck, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan

Burck coleads the firm’s Washington office and leads its Washington white-collar defense practice. Like Brownlee, Burck started his career on the other side of the courtroom, serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York from 2003 to 2005 and then in the U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Division. From 2007 to 2009, he was special counsel and deputy counsel to President George W. Bush.

Burck went into private practice in 2009, joining Weil, Gotshal & Manges. He moved to Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in 2012. One of Burck’s clients is the file-sharing website Megaupload S.L., which was indicted in 2012 in Alexandria, Va., federal district court on criminal copyright charges. Prosecutors at the time called the online piracy case one of the largest criminal copyright cases the government has even brought.

THE PROSECUTORS

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Dry, Jessica Aber and Ryan Faulconer of the Eastern District of Virginia are prosecuting, along with David Harbach II, deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. Dry, the former districtwide corporate and securities fraud coordinator, had been leading the U.S. attorney’s office investigation into the McDonnells. He and Harbach signed the indictment.

Harbach helped lead the government’s unsuccessful campaign-finance prosecution of former North Carolina senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. (The government abandoned the prosecution in 2012 following a mistrial.)

Harbach was involved in the prosecution of Fraser Verrusio, a former House of Representatives Transportation Committee official who is appealing his conviction on corruption charges.

In a written statement issued the day charges were filed against the McDonnells, Mythili Raman, acting assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division, said the case represented the Justice Department’s “commitment to rooting out public corruption at all levels of government.”

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com.