RICHMOND — Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell has filed for divorce from his wife, Maureen, his onetime co-defendant in a “tawdry” corruption trial that exposed their marital woes and tarnished his political legacy before the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out his conviction.
McDonnell, a Republican, filed for divorce in early November in Virginia Beach Circuit Court. The former first lady was served five days later, court records indicate. The divorce filing, which is under seal, was first reported by WTOP radio.
The former governor and his attorney, Reeves Mahoney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. No lawyer was listed for Maureen McDonnell.
Robert McDonnell, Virginia’s governor from 2010 to 2014, had been regarded as a rising GOP star before his financial ties to wealthy Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. drew scrutiny late in his term.
The McDonnells, both 64, were convicted in September 2014 of public corruption for taking more than $175,000 in loans and gifts — a Rolex watch, vacations and partial payments for a daughter’s wedding reception among them.
In exchange, prosecutors alleged, the McDonnells connected the dietary-supplement-maker with state officials, let him throw a luncheon at the governor’s mansion to help launch the product and allowed him to shape the guest list at a mansion reception meant for health-care leaders.
Robert McDonnell, a former state attorney general, was the first Virginia governor to be indicted or convicted of a felony.
The weeks-long trial put the McDonnells’ marital woes on vivid display, with defense lawyers asserting that the marriage was so broken that they could not have worked together to solicit Williams’s largesse.
Robert McDonnell was ultimately sentenced to two years in prison and his wife to a year and a day. But they spent no time in prison as their appeals moved through the court system.
Then the Supreme Court in June 2016 threw out Robert McDonnell’s conviction, ruling that jurors were wrongly instructed on the meaning of an “official act” — the thing he was said to have done for Williams — and therefore deserved at least a retrial.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. described the former governor’s actions as “tawdry” but agreed that instructions to the jury in his case about what constitutes “official acts” were so broad, they could cover almost any action a public official takes.
The court’s ruling set a higher bar for prosecuting public corruption and said explicitly that setting up meetings or arranging events for benefactors could not by themselves serve as a public official’s end of a corrupt bargain. In light of the new standard, prosecutors were forced to consider whether they could win the case in a retrial. They ultimately decided against retrying the pair.
The McDonnells started dating as teens. He was a former football star at Bishop Ireton, a Catholic prep school, and was back home in Northern Virginia between his freshman and sophomore years at Notre Dame. She was a Washington Redskins cheerleader.
After three years of dating, he asked her to marry him, popping the question in a Camaro parked in an Alexandria grocery store lot over a four-pack of “cheap ale,” Maureen McDonnell recalled in a 2010 interview. They married in 1976 and have five grown children.
The McDonnells were outwardly affectionate as Virginia’s first couple, from the time the governor carried the first lady over the Executive Mansion threshold on Inauguration Day in 2010, to when they stood smilingly arm in arm at his successor’s swearing-in four years later.
Over his long career as a conservative Christian politician, Robert McDonnell argued that there was a pressing public interest in strengthening traditional marriage.
“As the family goes, so goes the nation,” concludes the Regent University master’s thesis he penned in 1989, two years before his first election. Among other things, the thesis called for the creation of “covenant marriage,” which would be more difficult than conventional unions to dissolve through divorce.
But as a criminal defendant, McDonnell had a compelling need to declare his long marriage all but dead. The McDonnells had separate legal teams and lived apart but were united in one sense: Both argued that their marriage was so broken that they were barely communicating, much less conspiring to get gifts from Williams.
Some longtime friends, floored by claims that the couple was estranged, wondered if the assertion of marital discord was just a legal strategy.
When the scandal first became public, the details seemed to paint the first lady as someone making an aggressive grab for luxury goods, asking Williams to pick up the tab for a $15,000 shopping spree at Bergdorf Goodman in New York and to buy a Rolex that she could give to her husband.
But the governor himself had arranged a $70,000 loan from Williams to bail out a real estate company he owned with his sister. In sentencing the couple, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer said the blame-Maureen defense showed a lack of contrition on the former governor’s part.
“While Mrs. McDonnell may have allowed the serpent into the mansion,” Spencer said, “the governor knowingly let him into his personal and business affairs.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.