McDonnell Trial: No Signs of Marital Woes, Says Aide to Ex-Va. 1st Lady

Mary-Shea Sutherland: McDonnells struggled with finances and the first lady was prone to screaming rages

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A one-time member of the Bob and Maureen McDonnell’s inner circle took the stand Wednesday and offered testimony that damaged the defense in the former first couple of Virginia’s corruption trial. Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey reports. (Published Wednesday, Aug 6, 2014)

    The woman who served as chief of staff to Virginia's former first lady said Wednesday that she never saw any hint of a romantic relationship between her boss and a wealthy businessman — but that the couple struggled with finances and the first lady was prone to screaming rages.

    Mary-Shea Sutherland testified in the public corruption trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, that the couple's marriage seemed solid. She said Maureen McDonnell even let her read a "lovely'' poem her husband had written to her for a special occasion in 2011.

    Prosecutors asked Sutherland about the McDonnells' relationship to counter a defense assertion that the union was on the rocks and that Maureen McDonnell had developed a crush on former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams.

    That claim in last week's opening statements suggests a defense that the McDonnells could not have conspired in a gifts-for-favors scheme because they were not communicating.

    The McDonnells are charged in a 14-count indictment with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and secret loans from former Williams in exchange for promoting his dietary supplement company's products, primarily the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc. They could face decades in prison if convicted.

    Sutherland said when she was hired, she had a phone conversation with the governor about his expectations: "I asked him, 'How do you define success?' and he said, 'When I come home to a happy wife.'"

    But Sutherland testified Maureen McDonnell was often anything but happy, and she told FBI investigators the first lady was a "nut bag." She said the first lady was prone to screaming rages. Twice, the security detail at the mansion responded to see what was wrong.

    Sutherland said after a particularly "ugly day," she went to talk to the governor's chief of staff, Martin Kent. While waiting outside his office, Sutherland said the governor saw that she was upset, and invited her in. Sutherland said the governor "was very kind'' and asked her to understand the first lady was having a difficult year getting used to her new job and that her father had recently died.

    "I pushed back a little,'' Sutherland said. She told McDonnell that she, too, had recently lost both parents "and I never treated anyone like that.''

    Sutherland said her boss was often suspicious of others, once texting her that the mansion chef served her bad shrimp to try to ruin her holidays.

    Sutherland testified she left the position after 22 months because she couldn't take it anymore.

    On the stand Wednesday, Sutherland said Maureen McDonnell volunteered the governor's mansion as the location of an August 2011 lunch with university researchers Williams hoped would test his product, but Williams' company came up with the guest list.

    Sutherland testified that Maureen McDonnell was insistent that the governor attend the luncheon and was not happy when the governor's scheduler initially said he couldn't make it because of a conflict.

    "The FL (first lady) isn't going to be happy about it," Sutherland wrote in an email when she was told the governor couldn't attend. Eventually, the governor's staff reworked his schedule so he could attend the latter part of the luncheon.

    Sutherland, who was heavily involved in organizing the lunch, rejected a defense attorney's suggestion that she was trying to curry favor with Williams because she planned to quit her job and wanted him to hire her.

    "I was doing my job," Sutherland said.

    The issue of the couple's finances also came up. "They were buried in debt," Sutherland testified.

    In June 2011, Sutherland even gave Maureen McDonnell a $6,000 personal loan, which the first lady repaid a few months later.

    Sutherland testified when the idea of Williams buying Maureen McDonnell's inaugural gown was nixed, she ended up buying Maureen's gown on her personal credit card. "Why are you putting this dress on your card?" asked prosecutor Jessica Aber.

    Sutherland replied, "The one she was using was maxed out."

    Maureen McDonnell told Williams she would take "a rain check," witnesses have said -- and she cashed it in with a Manhattan shopping spree in 2011 financed by Williams. The haul from that excursion to high-end stores was about $20,000 in designer clothing and accessories.

    Sutherland was along on that trip, and Williams bought her a dress, too. The never-worn dress was introduced into evidence with the $1,600-plus price tag still attached.

    According to Sutherland, she initially resisted Williams' offer but he wore her down.

    "He said, 'I'm a father of two daughters and when I buy for one I like to buy for the other,'" Sutherland said. 

    Sutherland refused any notion of a romance between Williams and Maureen McDonnell.

    Williams, testifying under immunity for the government, also said this week that his relationship with Maureen McDonnell was not romantic.

    When asked if the first couple appeared to have a romantic relationship, Sutherland replied, "To my eye, yes."

    However, she also said that Williams was the former first lady's "favorite playmate."

    Williams, testifying under immunity for the government, also said this week that his relationship with Maureen McDonnell was not romantic.

    During a break in Sutherland's testimony, Bob McDonnell hugged her in the hallway and the two exchanged pleasantries. Prosecutor Michael Dry complained about the incident to the judge, saying the defendant had no business having any contact with a witness -- especially one who wasn't finished testifying.

    "Don't let it happen again," U.S. District Judge James Spencer said.