(AP) When former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were indicted on corruption charges in January, the couple stood together at a hastily called news conference to denounce the charges.
Three days later, they held hands as they made their way through the federal courthouse to enter not-guilty pleas. The couple continued to show a united front for more than six months during several pretrial motions.
But since the start of the trial this week, the couple has been hands off — entering and leaving the courthouse apart and showing no outward signs of affection.
On Tuesday, defense attorneys helped explain that separation as they presented to jurors the sordid details of the couple’s troubled marriage as part of a legal strategy some experts say may be a key part of the McDonnells’ defense.
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, in exchange for helping to promote Williams’ business. If convicted, they could face decades in prison.
Maureen McDonnell’s lawyer, William A. Burck, told jurors during opening statements that the former first lady had a crush on Williams but was “duped” by him into thinking he cared for her. Burck said Maureen and Bob McDonnell were pretending to be a happy couple while he was serving as governor.
“They were barely on speaking terms,” Burck said.
A lawyer for the former governor said Bob McDonnell will testify on his own behalf and 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.
The McDonnell’s daughter, Cailin McDonnell Young, testified that she had to go through her father’s scheduler in order to see him. He would sometimes take days to return phone calls.
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.
Robert D. Holsworth, a consultant and retired Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist, said the defense is trying to undermine a key part of the prosecution’s case.
“Basically, they’re saying there’s no conspiracy because there’s no marriage,” Holsworth said.
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, who left office in January, had a duty “not to sell the power and influence of his office to the highest bidder,” Aber 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.
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 subject to the same scrutiny as her husband.
Burck said Williams and Maureen McDonnell 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.
Aber, the prosecutor, told the jury that the 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.
The former governor is accused of setting up a meeting between Williams and a state health official, hosting a product launch reception at the Executive Mansion and attending a dinner and seminar aimed at persuading doctors to recommend a Star Scientific product.
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.
The trial is set to resume Wednesday morning with the continued testimony of Williams’ assistant, Jerri Fulkerson.
– LARRY O’DELL, Associated Press
– ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press