RICHMOND — Maureen McDonnell was a whirlwind, zipping from book-signings and ribbon-cuttings to baby showers for military moms. She averaged nearly three speeches a month last year.
But the first lady of Virginia has scarcely had a public event in the past three months.
Her retreat from the spotlight has coincided with her emergence at the center of a growing investigation into gifts to her and her family from a wealthy businessman named Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
Williams sprinkled luxury items and big checks among several McDonnell family members, and recent revelations suggest that the first lady made the most aggressive grab for the good life.
She asked Williams to pick up the tab for a $15,000 shopping trip to Bergdorf Goodman in New York, people with knowledge of the gift have said. And after admiring Williams’s Rolex watch, she asked him to buy another one that she could give to her husband, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). She received a $50,000 check from Williams, which the governor reported as a loan, as she confided financial stress to friends.
Some of Maureen McDonnell’s closest friends are surprised by the reports, saying she is as sweet as her public image. But some people she has worked with at the governor’s mansion and in state government paint a different portrait: one of someone unable to make the leap into the Richmond fishbowl.
They say she can be hard on staff, so much so that after several resignations, a team from Virginia Commonwealth University was summoned to the mansion to provide intensive workplace counseling.
The first lady’s spokeswoman declined to comment on Maureen McDonnell’s treatment of staff and referred questions about the VCU intervention to the governor’s office, which declined to comment. A VCU spokeswoman confirmed that in late 2011, the university’s Performance Management Group was brought in to assist the first lady in hiring.
Those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending the governor and first lady, said Maureen McDonnell can be demanding and preoccupied with appearances — hers and that of the mansion.
As state and federal investigators look into the relationship between the McDonnells and Williams, the first lady is under scrutiny not only for receiving gifts but also for promoting a nutritional supplement made by Williams’s company, Star Scientific, which is based in Glen Allen, Va.
She made one out-of-state appearance to promote the product, called Anatabloc, to investors. She pushed Robert McDonnell’s wary staff to allow the governor to attend an Anatabloc product-launch party at the mansion, state e-mail records show. She arranged for a meeting between Williams and a top state health official, during which the Star executive made a pitch for using Anatabloc to reduce state medical costs, people with knowledge of the August 2011 meeting said.
As the scandal has unfolded, some of the governor’s allies have expressed hope that all of the blame might rest with the first lady — someone who gained a reputation for being unfiltered in the 2009 campaign, when she publicly dismissed rumors that her husband dyed his hair by divulging that he rinsed it with green tea. Some of the governor’s supporters said last week that those hopes faded amid reports of more gifts or loans, including $70,000 from Williams to a company owned by Robert McDonnell and his sister.
Still, Maureen McDonnell appears deeply immersed in the world of Williams, Anatabloc and luxury gifts. As the allegations threaten the governor’s legacy and political future, they also cast a shadow on her own ambitious work as first lady.
Until the scandal broke, Maureen McDonnell was best known as a disarmingly sweet ex-cheerleader, a go-getter willing to travel the state, slog through international trade missions — even parachute out of a plane — to boost Virginia wine, wellness, tourism and military families.
On a trade mission to China with her husband in 2011, Maureen McDonnell asked the world’s largest television network to do something it had never done before: make a show promoting travel to a U.S. state. She met with the head of state-run CCTV to make her pitch, starting formally by invoking the place of Thomas Jefferson and Virginia in American history but soon shifting into easy, laughter-filled banter.
“She charmed that guy — I was there — and they eventually came to Virginia,” said Alisa Bailey, former president of the state’s tourism office. “She’s a saleswoman.”
Maureen McDonnell began drawing intense public scrutiny in late March, when The Washington Post reported that she had promoted Anatabloc at a Florida investors’ conference and, with the governor, held a product-launch party at the mansion around the time that Williams helped pay for their daughter Cailin’s wedding.
The governor has said the couple’s support for Anatabloc and Star was typical of the boost they would give any home-state business. It also dovetailed with Maureen McDonnell’s focus on health and wellness, an interest since her days as a Washington Redskins cheerleader, which led to a vitamin-sales business she has continued to pursue as first lady.
The science behind Anatabloc — an anti-inflammatory billed as having promise for the treatment of Alzheimer’s patients — has been questioned by medical experts as well as shareholders, who say in a lawsuit that Star made exaggerated claims. But many who have known Maureen McDonnell as an earnest pitchwoman for herbal pills and weight-loss shakes said she believed in the product.
“I think Maureen is really passionate about what she does, and sometimes passion allows for a little bit of blindness,” said Robyn Deane, a former in-law who recalled McDonnell’s sincere belief in everything she sold, from supplements and home decor items to teddy bears adorned with Bible verses.
In addition to health and wellness, Maureen McDonnell has focused on military families, women’s issues, and Virginia’s wine, film and tourism industries. Supporters said she has brought passion to those causes, whether by connecting local winemakers with overseas buyers or tandem parachuting into an event for military families.
“She truly put her heart and soul into her . . . initiatives,” said Sarah Scarbrough, mansion director and spokeswoman for the first lady.
Maureen McDonnell, 59, is fond of saying she found herself in the job of first lady only because of whom she fell in love with as a teenager.
He was a former Bishop Ireton football star, back home in Northern Virginia between freshman and sophomore years at Notre Dame. He spotted a blond beauty at a party in Annandale. He asked a friend, “Who’s the girl in the yellow jeans? . . . Tell her I want to marry her tomorrow.”
She liked to play a little hard to get, so he had to ask three times before she agreed to go out with him, Maureen McDonnell recalled in an unpublished 2010 interview with The Post.
After three years of dating, he asked her to marry him. He popped the question in a Camaro parked in an Alexandria grocery store lot over a four-pack of “cheap ale.”
“It was very simple,” she recalled. “Our life always was.”
Nearly 35 years later, he was carrying that bride over the threshold of the Virginia governor’s mansion. In between, the man who wooed in a parking lot collected master’s and law degrees, practiced law, served as a state delegate and state attorney general. One step at a time, up educational, professional and political ladders, he reached the pinnacle of Capitol Square.
For Maureen McDonnell, it was one big jump.
She was one of nine born to a homemaker and a State Department Foreign Service officer who, his obituary noted, was haunted by memories of fighting in World War II. She was a native of Fairfax County, and she had also lived in Mexico, where her father was stationed for a time.
The family had no dishwasher and just one car — a Country Squire station wagon with wood panels — that they all piled into for Sunday drives. There was a lot of music in the house, and her father loved to sing.
“Even when he worked in the yard, he’d whistle,” Maureen McDonnell said in her 2010 interview. “I felt like the von Trapp family, only we didn’t have the money.”
She continued to live modestly in married life, personally spraying for bugs outside her house in a neighborhood where most people hired exterminators, recalled Elaine Kubiak, a friend.
Robert McDonnell worked as a lawyer, but he took a lot of time off to campaign for delegate, represent Virginia Beach in the General Assembly and handle constituent concerns year round. Maureen McDonnell didn’t finish college, and she helped support the family as she stayed home with five children, three girls and twin boys. She sewed curtains and ran a succession of home-based businesses.
“I was amazed [at] the way she could keep everything together,” said Teri Rigell, the wife of Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who met the McDonnells two decades ago when they walked into her husband’s car dealership for a used Aerostar van.
When her husband became governor, Maureen McDonnell suddenly found herself in the spotlight — a mixed blessing for someone who didn’t shy from attention as a “Redskinette” but who was less sure of herself in the role of first lady.
At a mansion luncheon with Richmond socialites early in her tenure, Maureen McDonnell arrived far more casually dressed than her guests, so she went upstairs and changed clothes, according to two people familiar with the event who spoke anonymously so they would not offend the first lady.
Upon returning, she chatted away at the table, not realizing that the guests were waiting for her to signal that it was all right to begin eating by taking a bite herself.
She got some informal wardrobe and protocol coaching after that, at times seeking fashion advice from Sheila Johnson, the wealthy co-founder of the Black Entertainment Television network, who supported Robert McDonnell’s 2009 bid. By some accounts, she made great strides. By the time the first lady was in China in 2011, she had been so well schooled in its local customs that she knew just how to accept the CCTV chief’s business card — taking it with both hands, admiring it, front and back.
As Maureen McDonnell was growing into her public role, she sometimes lashed out at her staff behind closed doors, according to a volunteer who collaborates with the first lady on mansion projects, a former mansion employee and a state employee familiar with mansion operations.
Not satisfied with how a maid had cleaned her bathroom one day in 2011, the first lady got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the marble floor with bleach. She did this in her underwear to avoid getting bleach on her clothes. Then, according to four people close to the situation, she summoned two mansion staff members — professionals, not housekeepers — and directed them to strip down and scrub.
The staff members immediately complained to colleagues, the people said anonymously to maintain their relationship with the administration. Scarbrough, Maureen McDonnell’s spokeswoman, declined to comment.
The former mansion employee and four people who work with current and former staffers alleged that she had screamed at employees, called and sent text messages to them in the middle of the night for minor matters, such as a lost household item, and pushed them to pursue extravagant plans, such as her ultimately aborted effort to install a $400,000 Georgian-revival fireplace in the federal-style mansion dining room over the objections of architectural advisers. She has reduced maids and a state trooper to tears, the people said.
But some who know Maureen McDonnell outside the mansion find her utterly lacking in pretension. The Rev. Wayne Ball sees that in the way she and the governor worship on Sundays — and where: tiny St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Church Hill, a gentrifying but still scruffy part of Richmond. “They just come up the side aisle, come and take their seats in the pew, not making an entrance,” Ball said. “If she wanted to make a show, we’ve got the cathedral.”
Maureen McDonnell doesn’t easily take no for an answer, and some say that has been good for the mansion.
“Absolutely tops” is how Cessie Howell, wife of House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), described the first lady’s stewardship of the 200-year-old house. She praised her for finding a way to refinish badly worn floors, even after being told they were so thin from repeated sandings that nothing could be done.
But some staff members have complained that Maureen McDonnell sometimes has moved ahead with projects without thinking them through.
She led an effort to have portraits painted of every living first lady without lining up a place to hang them, for instance. A year after they were unveiled with great fanfare, the paintings have yet to find a permanent home.
Some volunteers involved with overseeing the privately funded portraits have dismissed them as a vanity project. Tom Camden, until recently curator of the state art collection, was not critical of the portraits but acknowledged that Maureen McDonnell had asked for several changes to hers.
“I understand how Mrs. McDonnell thought,” he said. “And I think she wanted her best image, whether it was necessarily historically accurate or not.”
Fredrick Kunkle and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.