One could have heard a pin drop in U.S. District Court in Richmond today.
William Burck, lawyer for Maureen McDonnell, said in his opening argument in a trial that Virginia’s former first lady, who has been indicted on 14 public corruption charges, along with her former governor husband, was “collateral damage” in a deeply troubled marriage. She had developed a “crush” on the businessman who had given her and her husband more than $150,000 in loans, gifts and cash.
“Their marriage had broken down,” Burck said. “They were barely on speaking terms.” Maureen McDonnell was said to be angry and frustrated that her husband had been working 16-hour days in public service for 20-plus years and had little to show for it. They had five children. Big debt. Bob wasn’t paying attention to her.
John L. Brownlee, the former governor’s lawyer, said that McDonnell’s hard public service work “took a toll on his family and a terrible toll on his wife. He was not nearly as successful as a husband. He tried to keep from the public the most painful aspects of his marriage. He never humiliated her. He never scorned her.”
In pops Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a smooth-talking entrepreneur pushing a new anti-aging cream made in part from tobacco plants (although his firm, Star Scientific, had lost a couple hundred million over the previous decade). Brownlee described the star witness for the prosecution as a “master manipulator.”
“This marriage broke apart and an outsider, another man, would invade and poison their marriage,” Brownlee said.
At one point, Maureen was said to have “hated” Bob, who wrote a lengthy email to her trying to reconcile. In fact, Brownlee said, the governor will read the e-mail when he goes on the stand during a trial that is expected to last at least five weeks. When McDonnell sent the email, however, “that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests.”
One could get snarky about this seemingly over-the-top soap opera. But no one in the courtroom seemed to be smirking. It is strange enough to be at a trial like this in a place like Virginia that considers itself above the petty corruption that plagues other states. It is even stranger to hear such excruciatingly personal and painful things about the state’s top former executive and his wife.