Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, are battling a 14-count public corruption indictment that alleges that they lent the prestige of the governor’s office to a Richmond area businessman and that, in exchange, the businessman lavished them with gifts and money.
On Wednesday, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell took the stand at his federal corruption trial and began laying out the narrative that will shape his defense — that he did nothing more for a dietary supplement company and its chief executive than he would have for any other state business.
There will probably be no more important moment in the trial; legal experts say McDonnell’s testimony over the coming days will determine in large part whether he and his wife end up in federal prison.
Day 19 of the McDonnell trial will start with perhaps the moment all of Richmond has been waiting for: Robert F. McDonnell, on the witness stand, answering questions about what his attorneys have characterized as his broken marriage.
The details are sure to be salacious. In his opening statement, McDonnell defense attorney John Brownlee promised that the former governor would read aloud to jurors an intimate e-mail in which he appealed to his wife, Maureen, to “help save the marriage.” Brownlee said the plea “fell upon blind eyes and deaf ears” because the night it was received, the first lady was “distracted with other interests.”
One can only speculate about what those other interests might have been.
And while the testimony will be captivating on a visceral level, it is also of vital importance to the case. Defense attorneys for both Robert and Maureen McDonnell have asserted that the couple’s marriage was so dysfunctional that they were barely speaking, let alone conspiring together to seek the largesse of Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. Maureen McDonnell’s defense attorney has even said his client had a “crush” on the businessman and was seeking his attention, rather than his money.
Whether jurors believe the governor when he fills in the details behind those claims will be pivotal. Other witnesses have testified that the governor seemed to love his wife, whom he was affectionate toward in public. The two had a joint birthday party just weeks ago. Can the governor convince the seven men and five women of the jury that the public displays were part of a facade, and he and Maureen McDonnell were barely speaking behind closed doors?
The proceedings begin at 9:45 a.m.
Today is not going to be a comfortable one for former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell.
As the 19th day of his trial on federal corruption charges began, his attorney, Henry “Hank” Asbill, asked him if it would be hard talking about his marriage.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult,” McDonnell said, his voice growing almost inaudible. “It’s going to be hard for me to talk about.”
McDonnell said despite living in the public eye for many years, he tried to keep two aspects of his life private: his marriage and his finances.
That is particularly important because if he is to convince jurors his marriage was broken — and he and his wife were thus not able to conspire — he must address other witnesses’ testimony that he and Maureen McDonnell seemed happy in public.
After professing discomfort about discussing his marriage on the witness stand, Robert F. McDonnell began to describe for jurors how he met and married Maureen McDonnell.
The meeting came sometime in July 1973, when he was home on a break from college at the University of Notre Dame. He was at a high school friend’s house when said he saw the future first lady and asked her out “a couple times,” only to be turned away.
“But I persevered,” he said, drawing a laugh.
McDonnell said he and Maureen soon began dating long distance: he was at Notre Dame, while she was living in Northern Virginia, so they saw one another on his school breaks. He said they got engaged after his junior year, and married soon after he graduated.
The first years, he said, were “very good.”
With former Gov. Bob McDonnell on the witness stand for a second day to talk about his marriage, the packed courtroom has fallen eerily silent, with reporters and spectators seeming to hang on his every word.
So many people have come to the Richmond courtroom that a court security officer is turning some away and directing them to a different room where a video feed of the trial is being displayed.
With McDonnell on the stand, it is perhaps no surprise, but the room is probably more full than at any other point during the trial — save when jurors were being selected, and reporters were allowed to stand along the walls.
The early years of Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell’s marriage were an “extended honeymoon” as the young couple went off to live in Germany, the former governor told jurors.
But things began to change when they returned from Bob McDonnell’s overseas Army deployment in May 1981 and started their family, he said. They were living in Georgia, with him working at a hospital supply firm and Maureen McDonnell waiting tables, when the first of their five children was born.
They were good partners. Bob McDonnell recalled his wife typing up his papers as he worked his way through law school and trying to support the growing family with a toy franchise of some sort. Pregnant with twins, Maureen McDonnell went door-to-door as her husband ran for state delegate in 1991.
But they had little time for each other. Bob McDonnell had growing responsibilities as an up-and-coming delegate, a new job in private law firm and Army Reserve obligations. Maureen McDonnell was holding down the fort with five young children and a home-based vitamin business.
There was no time for dates or even much conversation beyond conveying the logistics of carting kids around Virginia Beach.
“Soccer and swimming and music lessons and the different obligations we had with the children,” he said. “We began to focus on their needs and the logistics of what they were doing.”
It became clear to Bob McDonnell during family trip to Disney World in the mid-1990s that their relationship was strained.
“Maureen was very anxious” even during that get-away, Bob McDonnell said.
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell is continuing to lay out how tensions grew in their marriage as his political career continued. He said that when he decided to run for attorney general in 2005, a campaign that began in 2002, his wife, Maureen, was supportive–but she had concerns.
“At the time, she expressed some reservations. She would ask what is this going to be like? What will a campaign be like?” he said.
He said his wife ended up liking some parts of that statewide effort, including social events and meeting interesting people. But other parts of the campaign made her anxious.
“Some of the public events, where we were in the spotlight or where the was press around…The public life was one that caused more stress,” he said.
And there was another thing that was difficult, McDonnell testified. He said his wife had been involved in various businesses selling dietary supplements and vitamins–”nutraceuticals” as he calls them–for years. But he told his wife she would have to curtail those efforts because of his campaign.
“To avoid conflicts, we would have to be sure the marketing didn’t run over to the campaign or the public events that we were doing,” he said.
When Robert F. McDonnell became Virginia’s attorney general, he uprooted his life in Virginia Beach to head to Richmond. While his wife and children initially stayed south so the kids could finish school, they eventually all moved to the state capital to support McDonnell as he embarked on a job as the state’s top lawyer.
It was not easy, McDonnell testified Thursday.
“That move, was that easy or was that difficult for your wife,” defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill asked.
“It was difficult for both of us,” the former governor responded.
McDonnell seems to be building the narrative that as his political ambitions and successes increased, his marriage deteriorated. He testified that though his job as attorney general allowed his wife to live together 12 months out of the year (when he was a delegate, he spent a few months away from home while the legislature was in session), that did not help matters. He said his wife’s discussions became mostly limited to talking about their kids, schedules, soccer games and even her role on his gubernatorial campaign, rather than their own romantic connection.
“We spent more time talking about sort-of the business of living, as opposed to our relationship,” McDonnell said.
“It hurt the marriage, it hurt the communications, because I was working very long hours at the attorney general’s office,” he said. “I put my heart and soul into that job. It was a remarkable opportunity to serve in that capacity.”
When Robert F. McDonnell was attorney general, he said he warned his wife “early on” about the potential conflicts that might exist between her work promoting so-called “nutraceuticals” and his job in state government. He said he asked her to be “more discreet” in how she promoted the products.
Maureen McDonnell, though, apparently did not always heed or like her husband’s advice.
At one point, McDonnell said, his wife used an e-mail list from her husband’s gubernatorial campaign to promote products she was trying to sell for a company called Nu Skin.
“That e-mail that she sent out was using that list and actually talking a little bit about her products,” McDonnell testified. “I felt that was completely inappropriate.”
McDonnell said he talked to his wife, and “told her, ‘you can’t do that,’” even though he personally took nutraceuticals and he recognized his own career was impinging on his wife’s.
“I know at that time she was not happy about that,” he said. “I was telling Maureen because of my career, and my political campaign, you have to have a separation. … Essentially the furtherance of my own business was hurting her business, and I think that was not well received.”
Robert F. McDonnell says Maureen McDonnell’s stress level rose as he ran for and then won the 2009 campaign for governor. He said for the first time, she had an assigned staff person or two to assist her.
“We would get reports that she would yell at staff or be disappointed with staff,” he said, noting that she went through two or three people before finding the right fit. He said he would try to talk to his wife, but was traveling a great deal and campaign manager Phil Cox largely dealt with the issue.
After his election, Janet Vestal Kelly came to him and said that she could only join the administration if she did not have to work with Maureen. Kelly was McDonnell’s longest serving aide and he wanted to name her secretary of the commonwealth.
“That really hurt,” he said. “For her to state that to me…was really tough.”
McDonnell said Kelly told him his wife’s issue was “temperament.”
“It was anxiety. It was sweating the small stuff,” he said.
McDonnell lawyer Henry Asbill asked if Kelly had told him that she believed Maureen McDonnell had emotional issues and could use medical help.
“I believe she did,” he said. “I know she did at a later time.”
McDonnell said he was uncertain if that’s what his wife needed. She had lost her mother unexpectedly during the campaign, and he himself had been away. “I wasn’t quite sure,” he said.
“She had sought some in Virginia Beach before we moved up from there,” he said.
But Asbill asked him, now, as he was taking office as governor, did his wife seem receptive to go into counseling?
“No,” McDonnell responded.