‘Crush defense’ could help McDonnells legally, analysts say

The claim that Virginia’s former first lady suffered from a fraying marriage and a secret crush on a Virginia businessman opened the first day of Maureen and Robert F. McDonnell’s corruption trial with a bang.

But the soap-opera description provided by the couple’s defense team also could blow a hole in the prosecution’s case that the former governor and his wife worked together to solicit more than $150,000 in gifts and loans in exchange for helping the businessman’s company.

If Maureen McDonnell asked Jonnie R. Williams Sr. for designer shopping trips and other gifts because she was looking for attention from another man, that would undermine the government’s claim that the McDonnells were co-conspirators in a crime.

But convincing a jury that Maureen McDonnell had romantic motives could prove very difficult, several seasoned legal analysts predicted.

First, Robert McDonnell benefited directly from several of the gifts the couple received, prosecutors allege, while he was taking official acts to help Williams’s company. McDonnell’s lawyers argue that he promised Williams nothing and gave him no more than common political courtesies.

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)

“How does it help the defense with the golf trips that Bob McDonnell was taking? I mean, who was in the Ferrari?” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former Justice Department prosecutor, referring to his borrowing Williams’s luxury sports car. “It might help [explain away] a few of the gifts or raise some questions in jurors’ minds. But I certainly don’t think of it as a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

As well, several pieces of evidence contradict the McDonnells’ claim of a broken marriage and her infatuation with Williams. Some of the people who have reviewed testimony and documents in the government’s case say that of the nearly 1,200 e-mails and texts exchanged between Maureen McDonnell and Williams, none contain overt or explicit indications of romance or flirting.

Several white-collar defense lawyers not involved in the case said this “crush defense” paints Maureen McDonnell in an unflattering light, making her appear like an insecure and personally troubled person who hid things from her husband. But it could help the couple legally, they said, as it suggests that she had a personal motive rather than a criminal one.

“What they are trying to do is undermine the idea of corrupt intent, which is what the entire case hinges­ on,” said George Washington University law professor Randall Eliason. “They’re suggesting she is soliciting things because of another kind of relationship — a close, personal one.”

In the defense account, Robert McDonnell often wasn’t aware of the gifts she was seeking or the promises she was making — so he would not consider the gifts as bribes in exchange for his help to Williams’s dietary supplement company.

“If witness testimony does back up the opening, it would provide a very different image of the main players than the simple picture of greed that the government wants to draw,” said Andrew Wise, a white-collar defense lawyer at Miller & Chevalier. “And jurors will have to decide whether this was an agreement to trade things for official acts or whether there were other things motivating Williams and the McDonnells.”

But Wise and others agreed that prosecutors have a lot of ammunition to challenge Maureen McDonnell’s claim that a secret crush motivated her interest in Williams — particularly a Rolex watch, the loan of Williams’s Ferrari and luxury vacations, which all benefited then-Gov. McDonnell.

“I think you are going to see prosecutors . . . argue that Mrs. McDonnell’s efforts to do things specifically for her husband are inconsistent with idea that she had grown weary of her marriage and was looking for attention from another man,” Wise said.

Maureen McDonnell asked Williams to provide her with a Rolex watch she could give her husband for Christmas, according to the evidence — not the kind of gift an infatuated woman seeks from a romantic interest.

In addition, the McDonnells jointly celebrated their birthdays together a few weeks ago at their home in suburban Richmond.

Attorneys for the McDonnells declined to comment.

Other evidence that raises doubts about Maureen McDonnell’s crush includes the testimony of people who witnessed her daily interactions with Williams. Mary-Shea Sutherland, Maureen McDonnell’s former chief of staff, is expected to testify that Maureen McDonnell was calculating and aggressive in soliciting gifts and favors from Williams as well as from others. Sutherland has told prosecutors that she saw no hint of romance in the relationship.

Carol Leonnig covers federal agencies with a focus on government accountability.
Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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