Defense attorney: McDonnell marriage had ‘broken down’

A manicurist and a model are just two of the witnesses that may be called to testify in the federal corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, which commenced on Monday. The Washington Post's Matt Zapotosky reports from Richmond on some of the standout witnesses on the list released by prosecutors and defense attorneys. (Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife on Tuesday unveiled an unorthodox defense to the federal corruption charges against them: Maureen McDonnell had a “crush” on the charismatic executive who lavished gifts and cash on the couple.

Maureen McDonnell’s intense — even romantic — interest in Jonnie R. Williams Sr. helps explain why she let him pay for expensive shopping trips and vacations for her and her family while she promoted a nutritional supplement he was trying to sell, defense attorneys said during opening statements. She was not hatching a scheme with her husband to get rich by abusing the prestige of the governor’s office; rather, she was a woman in a broken marriage who craved attention.

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“Jonnie Williams was larger than life to Maureen McDonnell,” said William Burck, Maureen McDonnell’s lead defense attorney. “But unlike the other man in her life, Jonnie Williams paid attention to Maureen McDonnell.”

And the governor, his defense attorneys said, was an honest public servant who promised Williams nothing of consequence. They said he would take the witness stand to proclaim his innocence even if that required him to lay bare his family’s troubles and discuss his wife’s dealings with another man.

“Bob McDonnell is an innocent man,” said John Brownlee, one of his lead defense attorneys. He said that his client had intended only to promote a Virginia company and that the great lengths prosecutors had gone to prove otherwise — including flying to California to interview former presidential candidate Mitt Romney — had been unsuccessful.

“Bob McDonnell eats Virginia ham. He drinks Virginia wine. And my guess is, if the man smoked, he’d smoke Virginia cigarettes,” Brownlee said.

The salacious assertions about the marriage on the trial’s first day of testimony previewed what is shaping up to be a deeply personal and emotional affair.

Later in the day, Cailin McDonnell Young, one of the McDonnells’ daughters, cried softly on the witness stand as a prosecutor showed photos from the young woman’s wedding. The prosecutor had highlighted various items and wedding services that others had paid for — including a catering bill eventually footed by Williams, engraved silver picture frames for guests that Young said were donated by state Del. David I. Ramadan (R-Loudoun), wedding rings, and a dress worth more than $1,000 that Young said she put only $43 toward.

Young said that, in retrospect, she regretted having accepted the items and wished that she and her husband had themselves paid for a “small, backyard” affair, as she insisted the two had always planned. “Our wedding now has this black cloud over it. . . . You can’t look back at it with a happy memory,” she said.

The catering bill was among the first gifts from Williams to the McDonnell family that are part of the corruption case. Young testified that Williams offered to pay for her reception after meeting her just once, for 10 to 15 minutes, after she ran into the businessman and his wife having dinner with her parents at the governor’s mansion. After receiving the gift, she said, she added the businessman to the guest list for the event.

In January, Robert and Maureen McDonnell were charged in a 14-count indictment with lending the prestige of the governor’s office to Williams and Star Scientific, a company he once ran, in return for more than $150,000 in cash, loans, vacations, golf outings and luxury goods.

Laying out prosecutors’ case against the couple, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber said Robert McDonnell afforded Williams — whom she described as a “vitamin salesman” — unusual and official privileges in exchange for his largesse.

Aber said McDonnell requested that a high-ranking health official meet with Williams on “less than 12 hours notice” and allowed Williams to invite doctors to a mansion event. She showed jurors a photo — which had been e-mailed by Maureen McDonnell — showing the governor tan and smiling behind the wheel of Williams’s Ferrari, its top down and the wind mussing his hair.

“Mr. McDonnell’s subordinates, those researchers, the citizens of Virginia, no one knew what was really going on,” Aber said.

Defense attorneys launched a vigorous and creative counterattack. They said that prosecutors must prove the McDonnells conspired together with Williams and that, because of the state of the couple’s marriage, such a conspiracy was impossible.

Burck said a former staff member had referred to Williams as Maureen McDonnell’s “favorite playmate,” and the defense attorney said some might view the relationship as “inappropriate.” He noted the pair exchanged 1,200 texts and phone calls during the period covered by the indictment.

The McDonnells, by contrast, were “barely on speaking terms,” he said.

Brownlee, Robert McDonnell’s defense attorney, said Maureen McDonnell told her husband that she “hated him” and complained in particular of not having enough money. He said Robert McDonnell would read aloud to jurors an intimate e-mail in which he appealed to his wife to “help save the marriage.” But he said the plea “fell upon blind eyes and deaf ears” because the night it was received, Maureen McDonnell was “distracted with other interests.”

The couple’s problems “created a rift so wide that an outsider — in this case, another man — could invade and poison the marriage,” Brownlee said.

To be sure, defense attorneys have not asserted that Maureen McDonnell and Williams had a fully romantic or sexual relationship.

Burck said his client was suffering “collateral damage” from prosecutors’ pursuit of her husband; Brownlee, the former governor’s attorney, said both McDonnells — as well as the federal authorities who are prosecuting them — were victims of Williams, “the master manipulator.”

Attorneys for both the former governor and his wife aggressively attacked Williams’s credibility, saying that the account he provided to law enforcement officials had shifted several times and that he was testifying only because he was given immunity from prosecution. They said that investigators were probing a $10 million stock fraud in which Williams may have played a role and that he was lying about the McDonnells to avoid charges.

Aber, the prosecutor, acknowledged that Williams had lied at first to investigators — by asserting that he was a personal friend of the McDonnells’ and that his gifts came with no strings attached. But she said Williams was now telling the truth in exchange for immunity. She disputed the idea of some personal connection between Williams and Maureen McDonnell.

“This was always just a business relationship,” Aber said, “nothing more.”

She told the jurors that they would hear directly from Williams. “Mr. Williams is going to tell you that what he and the McDonnells were doing was wrong and that’s why he tried to hide it,” Aber said.

The defense case, as outlined Tuesday, contains other elements. Burck told jurors that Maureen McDonnell genuinely believed in Williams’s product, and in “nutraceuticals” generally, in part because of a breast cancer scare she had as a teenager. He also told jurors about Mary-Shea Sutherland, Maureen McDonnell’s former chief of staff, who he noted accepted gifts from Williams, helped Williams arrange a mansion event, and remains uncharged. He stressed that Maureen McDonnell, unlike Sutherland, was not a public official and could not be held accountable as such.

The attorneys questioned three prosecution witnesses Tuesday, and the judge told jurors to return at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to continue hearing testimony from Williams’s longtime assistant.

Questioned on his way out of the courthouse about the harrowing day, Robert McDonnell said: “I love my children very much. I’m sorry they’re having to go through this.”

laura.vozzella@washpost.com

Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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