Defense rests in ex-governor’s corruption trial
RICHMOND—Attorneys for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife wrapped up their case Wednesday in the couple’s corruption trial, their defense featuring McDonnell’s testimony and the idea that the marriage was so chilly they could not have conspired together.
During McDonnell’s four-plus days on the witness stand, the defense presented a melancholic letter he wrote to his wife professing his love for her, apologizing for his shortcomings, complaining about hers, and begging her to work with him to save the marriage.
While Maureen McDonnell didn’t testify, defense witnesses talked about her infatuation and “mild obsession” with former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams.
The McDonnells went on trial in late July on charges of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Williams in exchange for helping promote his company’s dietary supplements. Closing arguments were likely Friday, after prosecutors present rebuttal witnesses and attorneys from both sides hash out jury instructions.
On the witness stand, the ex-governor, once a rising star in the Republican Party who was widely considered a possible Mitt Romney running mate in 2012, acknowledged using poor judgment. He said he now regrets accepting the gifts from Williams, who was seeking state-backed research for his company’s tobacco-derived anti-inflammatory, Anatabloc.
Asked by defense attorney Henry Asbill if he risked his future by committing the crimes alleged in a 14-count indictment, McDonnell firmly responded: “No.”
In his letter to his wife on Labor Day 2011, McDonnell said he was lonely sometimes. “I want to be in love, not just watch movies about it,” he wrote.
The letter continued: “I am so spiritually and mentally exhausted from being yelled at. I don’t think you realize how you are affecting me and sometimes others with your tongue.”
He also testified that he got in the habit of working late to avoid going home and dealing with his wife’s rage. He moved out of the family home and into the rectory of a Catholic church for the duration of the trial for much the same reason.
On Wednesday, the couple’s eldest daughter said her parents’ marriage had been troubled for many years and her mom developed “a mild obsession” with Williams.
Jeanine McDonnell said her parents rarely spoke to each other in private, going back decades, and her mom developed an unusually close friendship with Williams.
Bob McDonnell testified that he viewed Williams as a personal friend and was comfortable accepting his gifts because he never sought any favors from him.
Jeanine McDonnell made clear she no longer thinks highly of Williams, who earlier testified under immunity that he was not friends with the McDonnells and he spent lavishly on them only to gain acceptance for Anatabloc.
The judge mildly rebuked Jeanine McDonnell when she said she returned a $10,000 check from Williams, a housewarming present, “once we learned that Jonnie himself was a criminal.”
She said as far back as 20 years ago, her father was rarely home and her mother was left largely alone to raise the couple’s five kids. Jeanine McDonnell said she believed, even as a child, that her mother was depressed. She took long baths and threw herself into soap operas to counter loneliness.
When the McDonnells were able to create family time, Jeanine McDonnell said, her father devoted himself to his children, and his wife received lowest priority. It got worse as McDonnell’s career took off. Still, Jeanine McDonnell said, her parents were adept at putting up a good front in public.
“Any time they went in a public setting, it was like a switch flipped and they turned it on,” she said.
Prosecutors introduced into evidence photos of the couple holding hands. They also showed a May 2011 email in which Maureen McDonnell, preparing to join her husband on an international trip, wrote: “Can’t wait to be with you. XOXOXO!!!”