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McDonnells pin acquittal hopes on bad marriage in Virginia trial

Bob McDonnellTrials and ArbitrationJustice SystemMarriagePoliticsGovernment
The trial of ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife opened with a defense statement calling them dysfunctional

It was Marilyn Monroe who famously noted that it was better to be unhappy alone than to be unhappy with someone – advice that was seemingly ignored by Virginia's once-golden couple, former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, who are on trial on corruption charges.

The trial resumed on Wednesday in Richmond, Va., after opening defense statements this week painted a portrait of an unhappy, dysfunctional couple so caught up in the miseries of a challenged marriage that they couldn't get it together enough to conspire in any fashion, let alone corruptly.

The former chief executive of the state that has been a cradle for presidents and for legendary great political thinkers longer than there has been a United States is pinning his hopes of avoiding a long stretch in prison on his broken marriage.

In January, McDonnell, a onetime aspirant for a top spot on the GOP national ticket, and his wife, were charged in a 14-count indictment alleging they had a corrupt relationship with Jonnie R. Williams, the head of a dietary supplement company. The McDonnells accepted favors, including more than $165,000 in loans, posh designer attire, vacations and a Rolex watch from Williams in exchange for promoting his business, Star Scientific.

Both McDonnells have denied the charges. Williams is expected to be the star witness against them in a trial that is likely to last more than a month.

In this age of social media and never-ending gossip masquerading as news you can use, the shenanigans of the rich and the self-proclaimed famous are too often an open book. But in politics, the relationship between an elected mayor, governor or even a president (all usually a man) and his first lady is often no more interesting than the tiny couple atop a wedding cake -- and just as real.

The scandals, misadventures and even other liaisons don’t usually become public knowledge until historians, rather than journalists, ply their craft -- as seen in the case of Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys, for example.

But the marriage between the McDonnells is at the heart and center of the defense this time around.

Maureen's lawyer, William A. Burck, told jurors that his client had a crush on Williams but was sadly duped. According to media reports, including a blog from the Washington Post, Burck said Maureen and Bob McDonnell were just pretending to be a happy couple.

“They were barely on speaking terms,” Burck said.

John Brownlee, the former governor's defense attorney, said that Bob McDonnell will testify on his own behalf and will read an email begging his wife to make things right.

“It fell upon blind eyes and deaf ears because that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests,” Brownlee said.

The long hours McDonnell spent at his job made Maureen angry. “She hated him for not being around, for serving the public night and day and not having anything left for her,” Brownlee said.

The disconnect between the McDonnells made it impossible for the pair to conspire about anything, let alone corruptly helping Williams. On the bottom line, McDonnell did not do more to help Williams than he would have done for any other Virginia-based company, the defense argued.

Not so, replied the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Jessica Aber. McDonnell had a responsibility “not to sell the power and influence of his office to the highest bidder,” Aber said.

Both sides agree there was frequent contact between Williams and Maureen McDonnell. The pair exchanged 1,200 phone calls and texts over two years -- more than one a day.

Aber branded Williams, her star witness, “a vitamin salesman.” But she insisted that Williams' gifts to Virginia's first family were always about Williams getting business done.

For example, she said, McDonnell sent Williams a message in May 2012 reading, “Per voicemail, would like to see if you could extend another 20k loan for this year.”

Williams shoots back: “Done.”

McDonnell at one point thanks Williams for funds to help with the governor's real estate investments, then sends an email to his policy director just six minutes later telling him to meet to discuss how to advance Williams' products.

The aide's reply: “We need to be careful with this issue.”

The first day of the trial was clearly a strain on the former governor.

“I love my children very much,” McDonnell responded to reporters outside the courtroom. “I’m sorry they’re having to go through this.”

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