Robert McDonnell trial to cast unflinching light on Virginia couple’s friends, marriage

A manicurist and a model are just two of the witnesses that may be called to testify in the federal corruption trial of former Va. 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)

The star witness is a flashy dietary supplement executive who boasted of friendships with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. A manicurist, a party planner and a yet-to-be-named public official from another state also could take the stand.

In their much-anticipated federal corruption trial set to begin Monday, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, will seek to win acquittal on multiple charges and restore their honor in the eyes of the law.

But over the course of the trial in a Richmond courtroom, expected to last five weeks, the McDonnells also will submit themselves to a potentially humiliating spectacle that will showcase an intimate view of their frayed marriage and odd personal relationships.

“It’s going to be ugly,” said L. Douglas Wilder, another former governor, who is friendly with McDonnell and has followed the case. “The more you read, the more sleaze develops. It’s not going to be nice for anyone.”

McDonnell, 60, a Republican who until January held the same office once occupied by Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, is the first Virginia governor to be charged with a crime.

Together, he and his wife are fighting 14 criminal charges of public corruption and lying on financial documents. Prosecutors have charged that in exchange for private plane rides, golf outings, expensive apparel and $120,000 in loans, the couple helped promote a businessman’s company, setting up meetings for chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. with state officials and even once letting him use the Executive Mansion for the launch of his new product.

Prosecutors will allege that McDonnell, a popular politician who had served 22 years in public life as a state delegate, attorney general and then governor, led a double life.

They will say that even as he held a reputation as a squeaky clean and earnest public servant with his eye on national office, he was secretly plotting with his wife to exchange state favors with Williams for luxuries the couple could not otherwise afford.

McDonnell’s attorneys will counter that he never promised to help Williams’s company and that the garish executive, with his boastful claims of celebrity friends, his high-flying lifestyle and a checkered business past, is now lying about dealings with the governor.

Even touchier, court filings show that McDonnell’s attorneys are preparing to argue that the governor was essentially a victim of his wife, who they will say at times accepted gifts from Williams without her husband knowing about it.

New revelations

The case has been dissected in hundreds of news stories over the course of the 16 months since it was first revealed that Williams, 59, then the chief executive of a dietary supplement company called Star Scientific, paid $15,000 for the catering at the 2011 wedding of the governor’s daughter.

But the trial undoubtedly will feature new revelations about the couple and about the man from whom they accepted lavish gifts.

One detail that could emerge as defense attorneys try to puncture Williams’s credibility: Williams’s boast that he was friendly with Lohan and Hilton.

The claim came as he stood chatting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City in 2009 with some of McDonnell’s aides, according to people familiar with what the aides have told prosecutors.

McDonnell had only recently been elected governor and was set to take office the next month. Williams, who had lent his private plane to the victorious campaign, had requested to meet with the incoming governor during a fundraising swing in New York City.

At the time, Williams barely knew McDonnell. But as he awaited his arrival, it was not long before Williams was holding up his cellphone and scrolling through the contact list to show off to the governor’s aides that he had the actresses’ personal numbers.

Accompanied by a friend, a New York-based male model whom Williams said he was eager to introduce to the newly elected governor, Williams told the aides that he had once flown Lohan on the same private plane he lent to the McDonnell campaign.

Jerry Kilgore, an attorney for Williams, declined to comment on the exchange or the impending trial. So did U.S. Attorney Dana Boente and attorneys for the former governor and his wife.

A number of other people familiar with the case spoke on the condition of anonymity because of admonishments from the judge discouraging pretrial publicity.

The McDonnell marriage

The case will come down to whether prosecutors can convince jurors that the McDonnells actually lent Williams the power of the governor’s office as part of a corrupt bargain.

They must prove that the McDonnells were in a conspiracy to perform “official” acts for Williams and that they did so intending to cheat Virginia voters of the governor’s honest services.

Presiding over the case will be U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer, a former prosecutor and army officer appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan. He is known for his stern and businesslike control of his courtroom, and he will surely attempt to limit salacious distractions.

But the human drama inherent to the case will inevitably emerge. The couple fought unsuccessfully for the right to be tried separately. Instead, the two will share a defense table as the governor argues that his wife kept him in the dark about many of her interactions with Williams, a claim that will require laying bare potentially deeply embarrassing details of their 38-year marriage.

For instance, McDonnell’s attorneys have vigorously denied that the couple were broke, even though they had invested nearly $4 million over three years in real estate and went to Williams three separate times for loans.

Their goal is to deny prosecutors the ability to argue that McDonnell was forced to strike a deal with Williams because of secret financial desperation.

At a recent pretrial hearing, an accountant whom defense attorneys intend to use at trial testified that McDonnell had a positive net worth, retirement accounts he could liquidate, some proceeds from his father’s estate and the promise of significant future earnings after he left office.

But the claim will require positing an uncomfortable corollary — that Maureen McDonnell, 60, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader who friends have said was anxious in the public spotlight — was routinely misstating the state of the family’s finances to friends and staffers.

“We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!” she wrote to an adviser of the governor’s just before he took office in 2010.

Prosecutors have alleged that Maureen McDonnell also complained to Williams that she and her husband were having severe financial difficulties, even that they were struggling to pay for their daughter’s wedding. (McDonnell has publicly said his daughter and her husband had decided to foot the bill for the wedding themselves, a claim that prosecutors could attempt to use to undermine his credibility.)

Another new revelation likely to emerge at trial: Maureen McDonnell’s former chief of staff, Mary-Shea Sutherland, has said she once wrote her boss a check to help cover expenses after the first lady complained she was swimming in debt and could not make ends meet, according to people familiar with Sutherland’s account to prosecutors.

Sutherland’s attorney, Ted Bruns, declined to comment.

A family affair

Although a complete list of witnesses has not been made public, court records and interviews reveal the breadth of people who may testify.

Court filings suggest that the former governor will likely take the stand in his own defense; Maureen McDonnell, the filings have indicated, does not plan to do so.

Both sides have likely subpoenaed more witnesses than they will call to the stand. But at last count, at least 25 former staffers for the governor have received subpoenas, many from both the prosecution and the defense.

So has the head of the governor’s state police protection detail, piercing the strict confidentiality generally afforded the first family by troopers who are privy to their most closely held secrets.

The defense has also subpoenaed Maureen McDonnell’s manicurist and 14 researchers and administrators at the University of Virginia, where Williams sought to have his dietary supplement studied.

Much of the trial could resemble a family affair. Prosecutors have indicated that they may call all five of McDonnell’s grown children to the stand. The former governor’s sister and her ex-husband have been subpoenaed, as has Williams’s wife and his brother.

The executive director of the Republican Governors Association, a key national political operative, is also likely to make an appearance. Phil Cox, who served as McDonnell’s campaign manager and director of his political action committee, vacationed with the McDonnells and Williamses at a luxury resort in Cape Cod over Labor Day weekend in 2012.

The group set out for the trip on Williams’s private plane from Richmond’s airport right after holding a tarmac rally for Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman’s first public event following that summer’s Republican National Convention, according to people familiar with the event.

On the other hand, people with far more glancing intersections in the case could also make appearances.

The defense has indicated that it may call James Abel, a New York event coordinator who is friendly with Sutherland.

While waiting for Sutherland at a McDonnell event in New York in April 2011, Abel ran into Williams and got to chatting about Williams’s new supplement, a pill made from a chemical found in tobacco that Williams’s company said could reverse inflammation, Abel said in an interview.

Abel said he told Williams that the pill would need a formal launch party. The next day, Abel sent Williams an e-mail offering his services to plan the party and indicating that he and Sutherland “had a wonderful dinner brainstorming about your launch event.”

The defense has suggested the e-mail could indicate that the Executive Mansion luncheon to launch Williams’s new product — a key element of the prosecution’s case that the McDonnells used state government to assist their generous friend — was, in fact, Sutherland’s brainchild.

Defense attorneys have charged that Sutherland was trying to curry favor with Williams and secretly exchanged 200 text messages and 80 phone calls with him in 2011 in hopes of leaving her job at the mansion and going to work for the businessman.

Abel said Williams never responded to his e-mail and that their conversations ended there.

“I find the whole thing rather humorous,” he said. “I could care less. I’m in New York. I’m a party planner here.”

Another piece of evidence held by prosecutors could undercut any attempt by the defense to pin the event on Sutherland. People with knowledge of the evidence have said they hold a videotape of Maureen McDonnell speaking to doctors and investors interested in Williams’s company in Florida in 2011, three days before her daughter’s wedding.

On the video, they said, she can be seen praising the company and offering her home, the historic Virginia governor’s mansion, for a party for its new pill.

The final days

McDonnell’s supporters had once hoped he might be spending these months preparing for a possible run for president in 2016.

Instead, friends say the McDonnells’ lives have largely been on hold since a grand jury indicted the couple 10 days after he left office.

Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who along with wife, Cessie, is close to the couple, said the former governor is deeply involved in the preparation of his defense. He also remains engaged in the politics of the state and often asks about the latest from the legislature during their frequent conversations.

McDonnell and Howell have been close for decades, together forming a Bible study group for members of the House of Delegates in 1992. Deeply religious Catholics, the couple are now taking comfort from their faith, Howell said.

“In a time like this, when it really does look like everything’s closing in on him, I believe Bob’s faith and Maureen’s faith is sustaining them,” Howell said. “He doesn’t have anger in him. I think he feels positive, and I think he would tell you it’s in the Lord’s hand.”

Given the question marks hanging over McDonnell’s future, he has been unable to throw himself into a full job search, although he has landed a part-time gig as a guest lecturer at Liberty University, the college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.

Samuel Giovannucci, a rising junior at the school, said McDonnell spoke to a constitutional history class in March.

“He hit very hard on leadership and the importance of leadership,” said Giovannucci, 21, who said handouts with various quotes and book excerpts on the subject were passed out.

McDonnell did not mention that he and his wife were under federal indictment, Giovannucci said.

Even their final days in the governor’s mansion were marred by the kind of jarring contrasts that the federal case has revealed about McDonnell’s four years in office.

McDonnell was consumed with completing his final budget, highlighting the accomplishments of his administration and girding for the indictment that by then seemed inevitable.

Maureen McDonnell was pressing to enjoy the final perks of office.

According to several state employees familiar with her requests, she pushed to stay at the Executive Mansion as long as possible, even asking for access to the 200-year-old historic home after her husband ceded office to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Jan. 11. She reasoned that her husband was elected to a four-year term and had not taken office until Jan. 16, 2010.

In the end, the couple departed the mansion only on the morning of McAuliffe’s inauguration, breaking a recent tradition in which first families have vacated the premises days in advance to allow state employees time to prepare for the new occupants.

About a month before the McDonnells’ exit, the first lady also stunned members of the mansion’s advisory council when she asked whether she could have as keepsakes four shoeboxes full of Christmas ornaments, one from each year that the family occupied the mansion, according to two people directly involved with the council.

The Citizens Advisory Council for Furnishing and Interpreting the Executive Mansion had raised the money to buy the ornaments and had donated them to the mansion, making them state property.

They offered to let her pay for them.

She declined.

Carol D. Leonnig 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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