The troubled marriage of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, has become the centerpiece of the couple's corruption trial in federal court here. But it's not prosecutors who are exposing the embarrassing and highly personal details. It's Bob McDonnell.
In defending against federal charges that he and his wife conspired to take up to $177,000 in gifts and loans from a millionaire in exchange for political favors, McDonnell took the stand last week, insisting that his marriage is in such bad shape that he and his wife are hardly speaking, much less capable of conspiring in a plot to extort money.
Once considered a rising Republican star and possible vice presidential candidate, McDonnell testified repeatedly — even reciting from private emails he sent his wife — that it was clear who was to blame for both the marital problems and the questionable dealings: Maureen McDonnell.
In what some pundits are calling the "crazy-wife defense," McDonnell, a former courtroom lawyer and longtime politician who is used to being onstage, told the court it was difficult to discuss his marital problems in public. Yet he did so in clinical detail for hours and hours, insisting he was a man chiefly concerned with his wife's mental health and his children's welfare.
Much of his testimony seemed like a soap opera storyline. He painted a picture of his wife as an unsophisticated woman who raised the children and sold vitamins from a home-based business, but started having screaming fits at him and the governor's mansion staff after being thrust into the responsibility of being the state's first lady.
Over three days of testimony, McDonnell calmly and without showing emotion described how his marriage slowly deteriorated as he rose from a state delegate to attorney general to governor.
After a particularly difficult Labor Day weekend in 2011, McDonnell sent a message to his wife from his BlackBerry: "I am completely at a loss as to how to handle the fiery anger and hate from you that has become more and more frequent. You told me again yesterday that you would wreck my things and how bad I am. It hurt me to my core."
He and his wife did not interact in the courtroom, even when seated in close proximity. During most of his testimony, she looked straight past him, at times gripping a large ceramic cross in the palm of her hand. McDonnell said he had moved in with his parish priest about a week before the trial because he "did not have the emotional ability to go home and revisit things every night with Maureen."
McDonnell testified that at first he liked entrepreneur Jonnie R. Williams, a local purveyor of supposed miracle cures for everything from wrinkles to cancer. Williams showered the couple with attention, gifts and financial support.
In return, Williams says, the couple agreed to promote his business. Once at odds with federal regulators over claims that his tobacco-extract product could treat Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis, Williams is now the government's star witness.
The McDonnells were charged in a 14-count indictment with promoting Williams' products in return for lavish gifts for them and their children, including $15,000 for their daughter's wedding expenses, golf clubs for their sons, $19,000 in designer clothes for Maureen, numerous vacations, $120,000 in low-interest loans, and a $6,500 Rolex watch inscribed "71st Governor of Virginia."
McDonnell said he saw Williams' growing closeness with his wife as a benefit, not a threat, as it seemed to make her happy and provide her with emotional support he admitted he was not capable of providing her. He said he did not think Williams and his wife had a physical relationship, but rather "an emotional attachment."
The challenge for the prosecution will be demonstrating a quid pro quo between Williams' gifts and McDonnell's support, which is essential to proving a political corruption charge.
Prosecutors allege the financially strapped McDonnells tried their best to help Williams, hosting a lunch at the mansion to help launch his new product, Anatabloc, and introducing the businessman to state health officials. Maureen McDonnell spoke at several media events promoting Anatabloc, and the governor sent a few emails prodding state educators to talk to Williams. The former governor testified he was taking three to five of Williams' pills a day.
McDonnell testified that most of the loans and gifts were arranged by his wife, though he admitted he personally pushed Williams hard for a $50,000 loan to cover expenses at two beach rental properties. He also gratefully accepted the use of Williams' private airplane for campaign and personal travel, numerous dinners, and a round of golf for him and his family at a ritzy country club. Shortly after a $50,000 loan to his wife and a $15,000 gift for the wedding, McDonnell sent Williams an email saying, "Thanks for all your help with my family."
But McDonnell said Williams' testimony that the governor was personally involved in arranging the loan to his wife and many other transactions was false.
It remains to be seen whether the jury of five women and seven men will sympathize with McDonnell's marital plight or be turned off by his legal strategy of blaming his wife. Government attorneys will get their chance to cross-examine McDonnell starting this week. Maureen McDonnell is not expected to take the stand.
But McDonnell himself seemed pleased after the direct testimony about his marriage was over Thursday. "Did I do OK?" he asked two of his sisters and other family members seated in the first row. "Did I cover myself OK?"