Unflattering Portrait of Ex-Va. First Lady Emerges

View Comments ()
|
Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty Images
    file image from 2013

    The corruption trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, has already had plenty of embarrassing moments for the onetime first lady.

    Her lawyer said she was smitten with a free-spending vitamin entrepreneur who poisoned her marriage to a politically consumed and often-absent Republican up-and-comer.

    One former aide portrayed her as a screaming tyrant and acknowledged calling her a "nutbag,'' while another said Bob McDonnell was in denial about his wife's "mental capacity.''

    And a former assistant to her husband said he was mortified when Maureen tried to pitch a dietary supplement to GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, who has multiple sclerosis.

    In contrast, many prosecution witnesses questioned about the activities that led to the 14-count indictment against the McDonnells spoke of their high regard for the former governor. Former administration officials said in response to defense attorneys on cross-examination that they would work for their old boss again if given the chance.

    As prosecutors presented their case to the jury over the first three weeks of the trial, the likely defense strategy began to emerge: Shift the blame for almost all of the alleged wrongdoing on Maureen McDonnell, then claim that she can't be convicted of selling the influence of the governor's office because she was not a public official.

    Attorneys had hinted at such a strategy in court papers, and they are likely to go at it full-bore when they begin presenting their case Monday.

    That means that as bad as it has been so far for Maureen McDonnell, it could get even worse. Several other former staffers are on the defense witness list and will likely have more unflattering things to say. In internal emails first obtained by The Associated Press earlier this year, one aide who has yet to testify made fun of Maureen McDonnell's "cleanse diet'' and said she needed to take "crazy pills.''

    "This defense is extraordinary,'' said Robert D. Holsworth, a consultant and former Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor who has attended most of the trial. "An essential part of it is to throw Maureen under the bus. The defense is portraying her as troubled, irrational and secretive. They haven't taken a single step to defend her honor.''

    He noted that former Maureen McDonnell chief of staff Mary-Shea Sutherland's description of her ex-boss as a "nutbag'' was brought up by a defense attorney.

    Another aspect of the apparent defense strategy awaits further development. The trial's first tabloid headline moment came in opening statements when Maureen McDonnell's attorney, William Burck, said the McDonnells' marriage was crumbling and his client had developed a "crush'' on former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams. Prosecutors claim Williams showered the former first couple and their children with more than $165,000 in gifts and loans in exchange for promoting his company's nutritional supplements, primarily the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc.

    By claiming the marriage was in trouble, the defense appeared to be suggesting that Bob and Maureen McDonnell could not have engaged in a conspiracy because they were barely communicating.

    "The point of this evidence is probably to suggest that there was no calculated scheme involving the former governor to trade money for official acts, and that the events described in the prosecution's case were more disorganized and chaotic than the prosecution wants the jury to believe,'' William & Mary Law School associate professor Jeffrey Bellin said in an e-mail.

    Williams, who testified under immunity, denied any suggestion of a budding romance and said he and Maureen had no physical contact. His relationship with both McDonnells was strictly business, he said, even though defense attorneys produced a mildly provocative and surely embarrassing email from the former first lady in an attempt to contradict that. The email, sent to Williams minutes after an earthquake rocked Virginia, said: "I just felt the EARTH MOVE AND I WASN'T HAVING SEX!!!!''

    Several other witnesses described the McDonnells as openly affectionate and said they were unaware of any marital discord.

    "This crush theory hasn't emerged with any substance yet,'' Holsworth said. McDonnell is expected to address the marital situation when he testifies in his own defense.

    The idea that the McDonnells had a broken marriage stands in sharp contrast to the image the pair tried to portray during Bob McDonnell's political career. During his successful 2009 gubernatorial campaign, McDonnell's family ties were a foundation of his platform.

    "Hi I'm Bob McDonnell. To me, everything starts with family,'' began a video greeting to McDonnell's campaign website.

    At a campaign event, Maureen McDonnell read a note to the crowd Bob had given her with a Valentine's bouquet. She said she'd kept it for several years:

    "To the woman who made my life complete, and made me a father -- my favorite title. I love you, I love our family -- God's great gift to me.''