Ex-governor’s corruption trial focuses on marriage
RICHMOND—The corruption trial for ex-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife plunged Tuesday into the sordid details of the couple’s marriage and the former first lady’s “crush” on a businessman who, according to prosecutors, lavished them with gifts and cash in exchange for promoting his company.
The McDonnells are charged in a 14-count indictment with accepting more than $165,000 in loans, designer clothes, vacations and a Rolex watch from Jonnie Williams, the CEO of dietary supplements maker Star Scientific. If convicted, they could face decades in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber said during opening statements that McDonnell and his wife betrayed the public’s trust by lining their pockets with “secret gifts and cash.” McDonnell, a once-rising star in the Republican party who left office in January, had a duty “not to sell the power and influence of his office to the highest bidder,” Aber said.
“Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell knew what Mr. Williams wanted and gave it to him,” she said.
Attorneys for the McDonnells told jurors the governor did what any of his predecessors would do for a Virginia-based company. They questioned Williams’ character and said the couple couldn’t have been scheming together because their marriage was falling apart.
Maureen McDonnell’s lawyer, William A. Burck, said the former first lady was “duped” by Williams into thinking he cared for her.
Williams—who started his business career years ago in Fredericksburg—filled a “void” in her life, and she and her husband were pretending to be a happy couple although their marriage had “broken down” long ago, Burck said. “They were barely on speaking terms.”
A lawyer for the former governor said Bob McDonnell will testify on his own behalf and will read an email in which he begged his wife to work things out with him. “It fell upon blind eyes and deaf ears because that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests,” defense attorney John Brownlee said.
Brownlee said the government went to great lengths looking for people to say bad things about his client, even sending investigators to interview former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, and “came up empty.” McDonnell was widely mentioned as a possible Romney running mate in 2012. Brownlee said the long hours Bob McDonnell spent at work fueled Maureen McDonnell’s anger and resentment.
“She hated him for not being around, for serving the public night and day and not having anything left for her,” Brownlee said, adding that the void allowed an outsider to “invade and poison their marriage.”
The McDonnell’s daughter, Cailin McDonnell Young, testified that she had to go through her father’s scheduler in order see him. He would sometimes take days to return phone calls.
“I barely ever saw my father,” she said.
Young testified that Williams paid about $15,000 for catering at her wedding reception at the Executive Mansion.
“Our wedding now has a black cloud over it because of all that has happened and you can’t look back at it with a happy memory,” she testified.
The McDonnells arrived separately at federal court over the past two days, a sharp contrast to the united front they showed when they were indicted 10 days after he left office in January. Before the trial, they often held hands in the courthouse. The McDonnells’ attorneys sought to have them tried separately, but the judge refused. The former first lady’s attorneys have suggested that she was not an elected or paid official and therefore not tied to the same scrutiny as her husband.
Burck said Williams and Maureen frequently exchanged text messages and phone calls, and that Williams often visited the Executive Mansion. Burck said the pair had a relationship that “some people would consider inappropriate” and that one potential witness may describe Williams as Maureen McDonnell’s “favorite playmate.” He did not indicate that their relationship was physical.
Joseph E. diGenova, a former federal prosecutor not affiliated with the case, said the defense team is airing details of the couple’s troubled marriage as a way “to create some sympathy” and show that Bob McDonnell could have been unaware of the dealings between Maureen McDonnell and Williams.
The strategy could backfire, he said. “There’s always a risk the jury will think it’s a ploy,” diGenova said.
Aber, the prosecutor, told the jury that the luxury gifts and frequent text messaging between Williams and Maureen McDonnell were “always just a business relationship and nothing more.”
She showed the jury a photo of Bob McDonnell, smiling broadly and wearing sunglasses, driving Williams’ Ferrari during a vacation at Williams’ lake house.
Brownlee said McDonnell, whose campaign slogan was “Bob’s for Jobs,” spoke favorably of all Virginia businesses.
“Bob McDonnell eats Virginia ham, he drinks Virginia wine, and my guess is if he smoked he’d smoke Virginia cigarettes,” Brownlee said.
Brownlee attacked Williams’ credibility, calling him a “master manipulator” who deceived the McDonnells and the government to receive immunity. Williams may have illegally sold $10 million worth of Star Scientific shares to a friend in secret, according to Burck.