The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman and Matt Zapotosky break down the trial of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

On the day after her husband publicly apologized for accepting gifts and loans from a wealthy dietary supplement executive, Maureen McDonnell tearfully summoned her manicurist for a late-night visit to the historic governor’s mansion of Virginia.

The July 2013 apology had been an extraordinary step for then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) after months of pressure from revelations of his interactions with businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. consumed his last year in office.

McDonnell insisted that he had broken no laws and promised that with his apology complete, he would now get back to the business of governing.

Privately, the first lady feared otherwise.

Over hours of late-night wine, Maureen McDonnell poured out her heart to her manicurist. She had misjudged Jonnie Williams, she said, a man she had once thought a friend who had now betrayed her and her husband, according to people familiar with the manicurist’s visit.

Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell, center, arrives at court with daughter Rachel McDonnell, right, and attorney Heather Martin on Thursday. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Six months before the McDonnells were charged, the first lady made a stark prediction: Her husband would go to jail, she said, and it would all be her fault.

Last week, a federal jury assigned blame differently, convicting both Robert and Maureen McDonnell of conspiring to sell his office in exchange for $177,000 in luxury vacations, other gifts and sweetheart loans from Williams. He was convicted of 11 counts, she of nine. Both face years in prison.

There had been a way to avoid that.

In December, prosecutors offered to let the former governor plead guilty to just one count of lying to a bank. Maureen McDonnell would avoid charges entirely.

He flatly declined, refusing to plead guilty to a crime he has said he did not commit.

In a key detail that has not been publicly revealed, the plea deal would have required McDonnell to sign a statement acknowledging that he helped Williams’s company at the same time the businessman was giving him loot, fully shouldering blame for a relationship McDonnell has argued was not criminal and was, in any case, largely driven by his wife.

The deal also would have meant he could be sentenced to anything from probation to three years in prison — too risky for a man who believed he was innocent.

Maureen McDonnell has told friends and supporters that he declined the deal without consulting her.

A two-year conspiracy

During the just concluded six-week federal trial, prosecutors methodically detailed what they said was a two-year conspiracy by the couple to trade the prestige of the governor’s office to Williams and his dietary supplement company Star Scientific, displaying for jurors and a fixated national public the gory details of the governor’s finances and Williams’s largesse.

What has been less well known is the behind-the-scenes story of how the federal investigation ensnared the couple — and how they and their loyal support network responded in the challenging months when it became clear that investigators were closing in on the respected rising Republican star.

Key players, including the McDonnells’ attorneys, Williams’s lawyers and the U.S. attorney, all declined to comment.

But this article is drawn from the accounts of more than a dozen people who were intimately involved in the events. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting the judge who will sentence the McDonnells.

Riding high

As McDonnell entered the last of his four years in office in 2013, things could not have been going better politically for the former state attorney general. Nationally, he had recently concluded a term as president of the Republican Governors Association, and he was increasingly being mentioned as contender for his party’s nomination for president in 2016.

At home, polls showed McDonnell to be hugely popular as he prepared to steer his signature achievement through the state legislature: a bipartisan plan to improve the state’s crumbling transportation network.

But unbeknown to McDonnell, the chain of events that would lead to last week’s guilty verdicts had already begun.

Virginia State Police were quietly investigating allegations that Williams had paid $15,000 for catering at the 2011 wedding of one of the governor’s daughters. The governor had not disclosed the gift.

The information came from the mansion’s former executive chef, Todd Schneider, who was fired in 2012 after he came under suspicion of stealing food.

On Feb. 15, 2013, state police officers interviewed the first lady about Schneider, a session scheduled purportedly to help close out their investigation of the chef and send his case to a grand jury for charges.

They asked Maureen McDonnell questions about the former mansion chef. But an officer also asked her about an unrelated topic: Williams, his wedding check and an additional $50,000 check made out to the first lady from a trust run by the businessman.

When she reported back to her husband, McDonnell’s response showed he understood the situation was serious. He did what any Republican politician of consequence would do in Virginia’s capital: He contacted Richard Cullen Sr.

A former U.S. attorney and Virginia attorney general, Cullen is chairman of the McGuire Woods law firm, a national practice that is based in Richmond. The law firm and its consulting arm were so intertwined with McDonnell’s administration — with staffers passing easily back and forth between the entities — that people in town jokingly referred to the firm as “the shadow government.”

Now, McDonnell informed Cullen the couple needed legal advice.

McDonnell has told friends that Cullen said he could not help: Along with high-powered Washington white-collar defense attorney Reid Weingarten, Cullen was already representing someone else.

Jonnie Williams.

Investigation unfolds

In those first months, it was not clear whether the popular governor could be truly threatened by the Williams investigation.

Cullen recommended that McDonnell hire Emmet Flood, a former special counsel to President George W. Bush who works at Williams and Connolly, one of Washington’s premier white-collar criminal defense practices.

Williams’s attorneys and Flood entered into a joint defense agreement, sharing documents and intelligence about the unfolding investigation. It was a sign that, for the moment, the McDonnells’ interests and those of the businessman appeared to be aligned.

In the days after the state police interview, prosecutors told Flood that there was no federal corruption investigation of his clients. Reassuringly, the probe of Williams’s relationship with McDonnell appeared limited to state authorities, who seemed to be investigating whether McDonnell’s annual financial disclosures contained omissions that could result in misdemeanor charges. Federal officials appeared focused on possible securities violations Williams might have committed while serving as chief executive of the publicly traded Star Scientific.

More important, the swirling investigations had remained secret. For weeks, the public knew nothing. Neither did McDonnell’s senior aides, to whom he had said little in the preceding two years about his financial entanglements with Williams.

The secrecy ended March 31, when The Washington Post detailed the catering check and actions the couple took around the same time it arrived to promote Williams’s company.

McDonnell’s aides were shocked.

Tucker Martin, the governor’s director of communications, who was responsible for handling the governor’s public image, was on his honeymoon in South Africa. On the day the story appeared, Martin participated in a scratchy conference call with the governor and two other top aides, while pulled over at a gas station in the rural backcountry.

As open fires burned in the distance and goats wandered by, Martin brainstormed ways to contain the story and ensure that its negative impact passed quickly.

A gathering storm

But federal interest grew as more details emerged, including additional gifts from Williams and other ways the couple had helped his dietary supplement business. By the middle of April, Flood was told that a federal grand jury had been convened.

Subpoenas to the governor’s office and other key players quickly followed.

Abbe Lowell, a prominent defense attorney hired by Star Scientific to conduct an internal review of the company’s interaction with the governor, began to see a series of financial transactions that raised questions about whether the chief executive’s relationship with the governor had been proper.

He had suggested that Williams hire his own defense lawyer, and Williams had taken his recommendation of Weingarten.

Williams’s legal team found evidence that the governor and first lady appeared to have repeatedly solicited gifts from Williams, potentially a crime. But the team also saw Williams could be targeted as part of the conspiracy.

As a result, Williams’s attorneys soon expressed interest in cooperating with authorities.

By July 1, he had been extended immunity from public corruption charges in exchange for helping investigators look into his dealings with the McDonnell family.

Nearly a year later, that would be expanded to include prosecution from possible, unrelated stock fraud — an immunity deal that prosecutors felt was necessary so Williams would not be answering some questions and declining others at trial, citing his Fifth Amendment rights. Defense attorneys complained the arrangement was remarkably broad and that such an all-
encompassing pass might cause Williams to lie.

Sometime in the early summer of 2013, Williams’s team informed the McDonnells’ attorneys, who now included a separate team for the first lady, that they could no longer participate in a joint defense agreement.

It was an ominous sign.

Supporters shocked

By July, the scope of the jeopardy facing the McDonnells was becoming clear.

McDonnell’s D.C.-based attorney believed that the governor should say little publicly about Williams and nothing directly to prosecutors. Why accidentally say something that could help prosecutors build their case?

Guided by that advice, McDonnell had largely remained quiet, even as his reputation was systematically being worn away by a slow drip of embarrassing revelations.

Silence became untenable early that month, when The Post reported that Williams’s financial assistance included $120,000 in low-interest loans extended to the first lady and to a small real estate company owned by the governor and his sister.

Even the McDonnells’ closest supporters were shocked. His longtime political adviser, Phil Cox, went to the governor to express his frustration, telling him the loans had ruined any effort to move past the story.

Suddenly, conservative blogs started openly (and falsely) reporting rumors that the governor was about to resign.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House of Delegates, who faced reelection in the fall and were concerned about the prospects of the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Ken Cuccinelli II, started agitating for the governor to make some forceful acknowledgment that he knew his actions had been wrong.

McDonnell had hoped he could count on firm support from the chamber where he’d served, where his party dominated and where a dear friend served as speaker. But top Republicans told the governor and his aides that they were preparing a statement that would call out their party’s leader for errors in judgment.

At the same time, a new attorney had joined McDonnell’s team. John Brownlee had served as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia and run for attorney general as a Republican. He thought the governor’s team should try to more actively persuade prosecutors not to file charges and be more aggressive in trying to salvage McDonnell’s image.

A statement of apology, he advocated, could help legally as well, lifting some of the public pressure on prosecutors to act. An apology also better matched McDonnell’s own view that he should tell the public he was sorry for his actions, even if he was convinced they were not illegal.

As part of the strategy, around the same time as the statement was issued, Brownlee met with then-U.S. attorney Neil MacBride, whose prosecutors were leading the investigation, urging him to back off.

MacBride listened, but Brownlee knew the investigation was serious.

Prosecutors build their case

The apology did help quell some public anger. Instead of condemning the governor, House Republicans praised him for coming forward to say he was sorry. For the first time, McDonnell also went on offense. His spokesman declared that Williams, who the governor had previously referred to as a family friend, was lying to save himself.

But as summer turned to fall, prosecutors only intensified their efforts. In interviews with key staff, it became clear they were fleshing out how closely timed gifts from Williams were to acts the McDonnells took on the businessman’s behalf.

In a sealed court proceeding, prosecutors fought the McDonnells’ attorneys all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, winning the right to use key e-mails exchanged between the governor and his counselor Jasen Eige.

In one e-mail, McDonnell asked Eige about scientific studies Williams wanted for his product at public universities. The e-mail came six minutes after the governor e-mailed the businessman about a loan.

But by then, an election was approaching, as Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe faced off to replace McDonnell as governor. A final decision on whether to prosecute was on hold.

By December, prosecutors were ready to proceed. McDonnell’s attorneys were informed that U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente, who had taken over for MacBride in September, planned to ask a grand jury to return an indictment no later than Dec. 16.

The Post had previously reported that the decision to charge was briefly put on hold after the governor’s attorneys went to Washington and made a final, direct appeal to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, delivering the same arguments they would advance at trial: McDonnell had made Williams no promises. Many key interactions with the businessman were undertaken by his wife, sometimes without his knowledge.

Around the same time, a private attorney who had been hired to represent McDonnell’s aides in the investigation called prosecutors to pass along a concern from some of the governor’s top staffers.

Charging a sitting governor might adversely affect state government and negatively impact the gubernatorial transition as McAuliffe, who had won the November election, was preparing to take office, attorney Brian Whisler argued.

No sitting governor had ever been charged, and state government had no plan to deal with the fallout, he said. Whisler, who was a former federal prosecutor in the Richmond office, argued that the government should wait out the final weeks of McDonnell’s time in office.

Prosecutors were noncommittal about timing. But by late December, they alerted McDonnell that all appeals had been exhausted. They planned to move ahead.

A deal is offered

But, first, there would be one last-ditch effort to avoid a trial that would require three of the McDonnells’ five adult children to take the stand and detail their own gifts from Williams.

Just after Christmas, Maureen McDonnell’s attorney, William Burck, tried to work out a deal with Bob Wiechering, chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia. He was negotiating for both McDonnells. But the deal would be contingent upon the governor’s acceptance.

If McDonnell had accepted the plea agreement worked out between the two just before the New Year, he probably would have had to resign his office, a first for Virginia.

Still, he was only days away from handing over the reins of state government to McAuliffe anyway.

More worrisome, he would have been required to relinquish his law license, making earning a living for his family after leaving office a challenge. And there was the prospect of prison time.

The governor rejected the deal within days without a counterproposal. He was adamant about not admitting guilt.

On Jan. 11, 2014, McDonnell and his wife descended the steps of the stately Virginia Capitol arm-in-arm in a driving rain.

They listened as McAuliffe raised his right hand and took the oath of office. Then, as is Virginia tradition, they slipped away from the proceedings, making their way from the podium before the new governor delivered his inaugural address, which included a call for ethics reforms.

For some supporters, there was a sense of satisfaction in the moment. McDonnell and his wife had defied expectations. The governor served every day of his four-year term.

The couple was indicted 10 days later.

Carol D. Leonnig and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.