Staff e-mails portray former Va. first lady as insecure and erratic

As Virginia’s first lady, Maureen McDonnell was so worried about a speech she had to give that she turned to seven people for editing help, e-mailing one of them until 2 a.m. for advice and encouragement.

Her speech, delivered in January 2012, ultimately went well. But some of the state employees who had helped make that happen were rewarded with a scolding from then-governor Robert F. McDonnell (R).

“[T]oday at the meeting with the Gov, it was clear he thought the problem was a result of us scheduling her to something she shoujdln’t have been signed up to do b/c outside of her comfort zone and that i hadn’t managed the schedule timeline as i should have,” Kristen Kaplan, then a senior aide to the first lady, said in an e-mail.

“THere really wasnt any time for discussion or rebuttal with RFM,” she wrote. “he was popping in and out of the room.”

Maureen McDonnell comes across as insecure and sometimes erratic in hundreds of pages of e-mail exchanges among staff members at the governor’s mansion and two management consultants at Virginia Commonwealth University. The consultants were brought in to bring order to the seemingly dysfunctional workplace that was Virginia’s executive mansion.

The messages portray the governor as willing to devote high-level staff to helping his wife cope but reluctant to delve into the problems himself.

“He has done some great things as a leader, but I wish he could go deeper inside,” James M. Burke, director of VCU’s Performance Management Group, wrote to Kaplan. “[H]e is unwilling to confront the real problem for a sustained period of time. That is the part that is so upsetting to me.”

That exchange is part of 700 pages of e-mails obtained first by the Associated Press and subsequently by The Washington Post under Freedom of Information Act requests.

The messages provide a glimpse at the volatile work environment that pervaded the nation’s oldest governor’s residence when the McDonnells lived there. Inside the stately butter-yellow mansion perched atop Capitol Square, the first lady was said to have screamed at Kaplan so fiercely that the governor’s security detail felt the need to check on her.

Those messy professional and personal problems are certain to be laid bare in July, when the former governor and first lady are scheduled to go on trial on federal corruption charges.

The couple were charged in January with illegally accepting luxury gifts, vacations and loans from a Richmond area businessman who sought to promote his nutritional supplement with the help of the state government. The McDonnells have pleaded not guilty, maintaining that Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. never received state favors in exchange for his largesse.

Attorneys for the former first couple did not respond to requests for comment about the
e-mails. Kaplan could not be reached to comment, but three former co-workers at the mansion said her e-mails accurately portrayed the first lady as someone uncertain about her public duties and prone to lashing out at staff members.

A simple allegation from a Virginia chef catalyzed a criminal investigation about former Gov. Robert McDonnell. (Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

Elizabeth Mancano, who was a senior policy adviser, said the first lady was so terrified when she had to give a speech that she would become panicky for days beforehand.

“She got very worked up,” Mancano said. “You could almost set your clock by it. . . . She still got out there and did it and usually knocked it out of the park. . . . And once it was over she was like a new person.”

Although the e-mails make no mention of Williams or luxury gifts, they shed light on the couple’s personalities that could cut both ways at the trial.

The messages are filled with suggestions that the first lady was mentally unbalanced: “I just think she needs some crazy pills,” Kaplan writes at one point. That could help the governor argue in court that his wife was a loose cannon, working on her own to solicit gifts from Williams.

Yet the messages also indicate that the governor was aware enough of problems that he dispatched some of his most senior aides — chief of staff Martin Kent and Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Vestal Kelly — to wade into the mansion discord.

The messages paint a portrait of Maureen McDonnell that seems at odds with the aggressive gift-seeker that prosecutors describe in their indictment. The woman accused of having the chutzpah to ask Williams for a Rolex is described in the e-mails as someone so insecure that she had trouble leaving the mansion.

“[S]he gets to damn stressed about each project and yet is incapable of moving any of them forward,” Kaplan writes. “but i told Janet it isn’t even the projects. it’s almost like she’s just terribly board with nothing to do (i mean, she doesn’t have to clean, to cook, to parent, to even do her own work) so she just dwells and gets wound up. but the task of even leaving the house gets her all crazy stressed.”

The messages describe the mansion staff as subject to the first lady’s whims.

“Now she is starting some ‘cleanse’ diet,” Kaplan wrote. “So she’ll be unbalanced, stressed, hungry and in need of a bathroom every 2 minutes. I CAN’T WAIT!!!”

In the e-mails, Maureen McDonnell seems to see herself as powerless, someone who found herself in public life only because of where politics took her husband.

“I really wouldn’t be doing this for anyone else but that man of mine :),” she wrote to Burke as she fretted over the January 2012 speech.

The e-mails describe a time when the mansion staff presented their concerns in a letter to the first lady, which they said Kent intercepted and presumably shared with the governor. Kathy Scott, who worked at the mansion at the time, said in an interview with The Post that the letter said the first lady’s behavior had made their jobs “untenable.”

“We were begging for help, and what he [the governor] did was, he stayed close to home for the next six weeks,” Scott said. “As soon as he had to go back and do his job, things went downhill again.”

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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