RICHMOND, Va. — A longtime aide to former governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia on Monday portrayed the governor’s wife, Maureen, as an unstable, angry woman who flirted with the businessman who lavished the couple with gifts allegedly in exchange for promoting his business.
Defense lawyers began their rebuttal of public corruption charges against the pair, leaning heavily on Virginia’s former secretary of the commonwealth, Janet Vestal Kelly, to detail Maureen McDonnell’s relationship with her husband, her staff, and Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the chief executive of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific.
“I don’t want to pile on,” Kelly said, her voice choking with emotion, as staff members in US District Court here got her a box of tissues. “I hope I don’t need these.”
She did not. Kelly, her voice at times animated but never again reluctant, detailed the strains that “ruined” her relationship with Maureen McDonnell.
She recalled the January 2012 revolt in the Virginia governor’s mansion, in which the first lady’s entire staff threatened to quit, and she recounted an airplane ride Kelly, Williams, and Maureen McDonnell took to South Carolina for a Mitt Romney campaign event, where Maureen McDonnell and the businessman were “kind of flirty.”
“She is pathologically incapable of taking any responsibility,” Kelly said of the former first lady, when asked why her staff revolt did not quell tensions in the governor’s mansion. With Williams, however, she was “very, very, very friendly.”
Lawyers for the couple began calling witnesses to portray Bob McDonnell as a trusting innocent, alienated from his domineering wife, neither of whom were capable of engineering a quid-pro-quo relationship with Williams.
Kelly answered “no” when asked if Bob McDonnell saw ulterior motives in people, while she spoke of Maureen McDonnell hiding the fruits of lavish shopping trips, shrinking from her husband at private gatherings, and ignoring the advice of management consultants brought in to smooth her professional operations.
At one point, defense lawyer Henry Asbill displayed for jurors a letter signed by Maureen McDonnell’s staff that spoke of “screaming phone calls or nasty e-mails” and “the worst kind of bullying.”
In public, Kelly said, the McDonnells were very affectionate. In private, they barely interacted.
Kelly, who was in charge of appointing thousands to boards, commissions, and other posts in Virginia’s government, said she was never asked to name anyone connected to Williams or Star Scientific to any positions in the state.
Indeed, the defense on Monday afternoon called the head of Virginia’s Tobacco Commission and Bob McDonnell’s secretaries of education, finance, and commerce, all of whom said they had never heard of Williams or Star Scientific, and that the former governor had plenty of opportunities to help the company and did nothing.
Beyond the character issues, the crux of the defense was clear: Williams might have had an inappropriate relationship with Virginia’s first couple, but he got nothing tangible in return.
Earlier in the trial, Maureen McDonnell’s lawyer, William A. Burck, told the jury that she had developed a “crush” on Williams, and had merely sought gifts and attention out of marital frustration.
Williams, who testified under immunity, denied any improper relationship with McDonnell.
Federal prosecutors have painted the McDonnells as broke and willing to trade official acts for cash and gifts. They claim the couple pocketed $160,000 in loans and gifts from Williams in exchange for using the governor’s office to promote Williams’s dietary supplements.
Defense lawyers sketched their case in their opening arguments: that the marriage between the McDonnells was so broken, they could not have conspired in a scheme in which the first lady received gifts and the governor bestowed favors. (As Maureen McDonnell is not a public official, prosecutors must show that she and her husband worked together to advocate Williams’s product.)
The McDonnells could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Defense lawyers opened their case by trying to show that Bob McDonnell had been completely transparent with his financial records.
Brenda Chamberlain, the first defense witness called, told the court that it was the first time in her 10 years as a bookkeeper that a client had given her full access to his bank records.
But she also said Bob McDonnell was her first client ever to ask her to sign a confidentiality agreement, and that request came days after federal investigators first interviewed his wife.
Chamberlain handled the books for MoBo Real Estate Partners, owned by Bob McDonnell and his sister.
Prosecutors said Williams lent money, under the entity Starwood Trust, to MoBo to avoid public scrutiny.