Maureen McDonnell relayed to federal prosecutors last summer that she felt responsible for the relationship with a wealthy businessman who had drawn legal scrutiny to Virginia’s first family, and her attorney asked whether the case could be resolved without charges for her husband.
But prosecutors showed no interest, according to people familiar with the conversation. Instead, months later, authorities proposed that then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell plead guilty to one felony fraud charge that had nothing to do with corruption in office and his wife would avoid charges altogether. The governor rejected the offer, the people with knowledge of the conversations said.
On Tuesday, Robert and Maureen McDonnell were jointly charged in a 14-count indictment alleging that they engaged in conspiracy and fraud, trading on his office to provide assistance to the businessman in exchange for more than $165,000 in luxury gifts and loans.
The failed behind-the-scenes plea discussions underscore the former governor’s strong assertion that prosecutors have stretched the law to ensnare a high-level official through the actions of his wife. He has emphatically insisted that he did nothing illegal in his interactions with businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and made no agreements to assist his company, Star Scientific Inc.
It also provides a vivid illustration of the extent to which both of the McDonnells believe that it was the former first lady’s poor judgment in establishing a friendship with Williams that has landed the couple in legal peril.
Attorneys for the couple, who have said their clients are innocent, declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office also declined to comment.
A plea deal would have allowed the McDonnells to avoid the release of embarrassing details in an indictment as well as a bruising public trial that will probably put the internal dynamics of their marriage on full display.
Robert McDonnell has said publicly that he was not aware of all of the gifts his family accepted from Williams in 2011 and 2012.
People familiar with the investigation say that in private meetings, the couple’s attorneys have told prosecutors that Maureen McDonnell at times actively worked to hide Williams’s generosity from her husband.
In court, that idea will be tested against the reality of the couple’s relationship as jurors are asked to assess whether they believe the former governor could have been in the dark about Williams’s largesse and his wife’s activities to help Star Scientific.
Williams’s gifts included a Rolex watch inscribed “71st Governor of Virginia” that prosecutors say Maureen McDonnell requested in 2011 to later give her husband for Christmas.
The indictment includes more examples of actions she allegedly took on behalf of Star Scientific than did her husband.
While the governor set up meetings for Williams with top state officials and attended an event at the Executive Mansion to mark the launch of Star Scientific’s supplement Anatabloc, prosecutors say Maureen McDonnell told Williams in May 2011 that she could help the company if he provided the couple financial assistance.
Maureen McDonnell attended a number of Star events with investors, including events in Florida and Michigan. She sat in on an August 2011 meeting with a top state health official and Williams, where he suggested using state employees as a control group for research studies of Anatabloc.
But Maureen McDonnell did not hold public office and could not, on her own, illegally take action to assist Williams as part of a quid pro quo for items of value. Authorities allege that her actions became criminal as part of a conspiracy with her husband to use his office for the couple’s personal gain. To win a conviction, prosecutors must prove that the former governor agreed to provide his official help to Williams in exchange for his largesse.
Legal experts said the former first lady could attempt to shoulder blame as a way of trying to convince a jury that neither McDonnell took illegal actions.
“It’s almost like ships passing in the night. Where he says, ‘I didn’t know what she was doing.’ And she says, ‘I had no idea what he was doing.’ And the jury is left to decide what’s reasonable,” said Jonathan Biran, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s an interesting wrinkle.”
Peter Zeidenberg, a white-collar defense lawyer and former prosecutor on the White House leak of a CIA operative’s identity, said it will be interesting to watch whether the couple remain on the same page with their defense.
“It may not be in their best interests to stay unified,” he said. “It may be in the governor’s best interests to put distance between himself and his wife. He can say, ‘I can’t keep track of everything she buys.’ ”
Since Tuesday, when the indictment was handed up, the former governor’s comments have focused almost exclusively on his own innocence.
“I come before you this evening as someone who has been falsely and wrongfully accused and whose public service has been wrongfully attacked,” he said in a televised statement Tuesday evening.
Maureen McDonnell stood stone-faced at his side but did not speak. He did not mention the charges against her.
“Bob McDonnell is an innocent man,” begins the defense’s formal reply to the charges. The only reference to his wife is a footnote, in which the governor’s attorneys say that the first lady is not a public official so she cannot engage in official acts.
The plea deal offered by prosecutors in late December would have omitted accusations that Robert McDonnell misused his position as governor.
Instead, he would have pleaded guilty to failing to disclose Williams’s loans on a list of liabilities included on an application to refinance the couple’s hefty mortgages.
But in this week’s motion, his attorneys argued that he was innocent of the fraud charge as well.
They wrote that the omissions were inadvertent and would not have made a difference in whether his application was approved.