Working for Maureen McDonnell ‘intolerable,’ former aide testifies

As first lady of Virginia, Maureen McDonnell sometimes yelled at her chief of staff so loudly that the governor’s security detail came rushing over to see what was wrong, the onetime top aide testified Wednesday. McDonnell text-messaged workers at all hours of the day and night, no matter if they were at home making dinner or even sleeping.

And she once accused the mansion chef of intentionally serving her spoiled food — just to make her sick at Christmas, the aide testified.

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“It was almost two years of emotional stress,” the aide said. “It just became intolerable. It was yelling, accusations. Nothing was ever right.”

On the eighth day of the public corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen McDonnell’s former chief of staff, Mary-Shea Sutherland, pulled back the curtain on her boss’s personal life and fiery management style. She acknowledged referring to Maureen McDonnell as a “nutbag” in an interview with the FBI and talked in some detail about the McDonnells’ financial woes. She described how her boss confided that she and the governor were “buried in debt.”

List of gifts given to the McDonnell family from Jonnie Williams.

The McDonnells are charged with lending the prestige of the governor’s office to Richmond-area businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for loans, vacations and luxury goods. Sutherland’s testimony helped prosecutors on a number of points.

She rejected, for example, the idea of a romance between Williams and Maureen McDonnell and provided examples of loving gestures she observed between the McDonnells. That seriously undercuts the defense assertion that the marriage was so broken that Robert and Maureen McDonnell were incapable of conspiring together.

She also provided concrete examples of the couple’s money troubles, which prosecutors have said motivated them to seek Williams’s money.

But Sutherland, notably, weakened the link between Robert McDonnell and an August 2011 event at the Executive Mansion that prosecutors say was intended to help Williams promote a dietary supplement produced by his company. She testified — and e-mails show — that the governor’s scheduler initially said McDonnell would not be able to attend because he had a radio appearance the same day. He agreed to come for the last 30 minutes only after Sutherland indicated that the first lady would be unhappy otherwise, the e-mails show.

Because the first lady is not a public official, prosecutors cannot win the case by proving that she alone helped — or offered to help — Williams. They must show that she conspired with her husband to do so.

Sutherland, who testified that she was at times a confidante of the first lady’s, provided some evidence, at least, that the McDonnells’ marriage was intact. She said staff members worked hard to find times for the first couple to eat meals together. And she recalled an incident in which Williams bought Maureen McDonnell a yellow dress — at her request — because her husband “had fallen in love with her in yellow.”

On another occasion in 2011, Sutherland said, Maureen McDonnell showed her a love poem that the governor had written to her. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber asked Sutherland to describe the general contents of the note “without being too crass.”

“It was lovely,” Sutherland responded.

Sutherland did, however, acknowledge that she had called Williams her boss’s “favorite playmate” in an interview with law enforcement officials and had referred to meetings between them as “play dates.”

On the McDonnells’ finances, Sutherland testified that the first lady confided that the couple was underwater on a home they had purchased in the Richmond suburbs and that rent payments were not providing enough to pay the mortgages on two homes the couple bought as investment properties in Virginia Beach.

She said she charged to her own credit card shoes that Maureen McDonnell bought for the inauguration after discovering that the first lady’s card was maxed out. (Sutherland was reimbursed by Robert McDonnell’s political action committee.) Sutherland also gave her boss a $6,000 loan in June 2011, after Maureen McDonnell said she needed money to cover a stock purchase. It was soon after Williams lent the first lady $50,000 and around the time the first lady bought about $30,000 of Star Scientific stock.

Unlike Williams’s loan, the loan from Maureen McDonnell’s chief of staff was paid back in two months.

Sutherland, who worked for the first lady for about 20 months, said Maureen McDonnell “was a delight” to work with on some days, though other days were intolerable.

She said she discussed mansion working conditions at least once a month with Martin Kent, the governor’s chief of staff and her direct superior. Just once, she said, did she lay out issues for the governor, when he saw her in tears in the hallway outside his office.

The governor, Sutherland said, had encouraged her to take the job in December 2009, telling her in a phone call that he would deem her successful if he “came home to a happy wife.”

“He was genuinely concerned,” Sutherland said of their later encounter outside the office, adding that he also asked her to be patient with his wife because she had recently lost her father. “He asked me to try to understand what Maureen was going through.”

Sutherland said she replied, “I’ve lost both of my parents, and I maintained a full-time job and never treated people the way she was treating staff.”

Before she took the stand, Sutherland was a major target for defense attorneys, who said she was working to secure a job with Williams as she helped him navigate the governor’s office. They said her work with the 2011 mansion event, in particular, provided evidence of that motive, and they noted that when Williams took Maureen McDonnell on a $20,000 shopping spree in New York City, he bought a $1,600 dress for Sutherland.

And they suggested that Sutherland failed to shield her boss from Williams and, therefore, was partly to blame for what took place.

Sutherland acknowledged that she talked with Williams in her desperate search for a job away from the first lady, though she left in October 2011 without any sort of job connected to him. That, she said, was after a final, unpleasant exchange in which Maureen McDonnell — apparently having heard that she had talked with Williams about a job — demanded her e-mail password, browsed her account and searched her desk for business cards.

Asked about the connection between her job conversation with Williams and the mansion event she helped arrange, she said, “I was doing my job.”

And Sutherland did not receive anywhere near the same level of generosity from Williams that the first lady did. Jurors saw picture after picture of the apparel Williams bought for Maureen McDonnell on a New York shopping trip in 2011 — including a dress from Bergdorf Goodman, a coat and sweater from Oscar de la Renta and shoes and a purse from Louis Vuitton. But they saw just one item bought for Sutherland.

It was a dress, shown to the jury in a plastic garment bag with its $1,600 price tag still attached. Sutherland said it had been in her closet, unworn, until the day the FBI knocked on her door.

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

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