The corruption trial of a former governor of an American state who was once a serious White House contender is captivating the nation with tales of excess and lurid details of a broken marriage.
Bob and Maureen McDonnell are on trial in Virginia’s capital, Richmond, facing 14 charges, including accepting bribes and obstructing an investigation. If convicted, both could face up to twenty years in prison.
The government asserted that the ex-governor and his wife took $120,000 in loans and $50,000 in gifts from Richmond businessman Jonnnie Williams.
Prosecutors say Williams was hoping to get the governor and Virginia’s “First Lady” to provide state assistance and personal endorsements to Williams’ company Star Scientific, which was selling dietary supplements.
Luxury shopping sprees, cash loans
The prosecution’s case detailed, among other things, expensive shopping sprees for Maureen McDonnell and substantial cash loans to the couple to help them recover from several soured real estate investments, Williams allegedly picked up the tab for the McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding and provided the governor with a Rolex watch with a special inscription.
To increase the pressure on the McDonnells, the government granted Jonnie Williams immunity from prosecution in exchange for his cooperation.
“If he did not have immunity, he would very likely be in the same boat as the McDonnells because he has as much as admitted that he showered the McDonnells with gifts in order to get benefits from the governor,” said University of Richmond law professor Henry Chambers. “That he appears to have been unsuccessful does not matter.”
Williams told the court that Maureen McDonnell never told him that his gifts were excessive or inappropriate. The businessman also testified that he was never told by the governor to stop showering them with gifts and favors.
In late 2013, as the pre-indictment investigation into the McDonnells was underway, the couple said it repaid Williams for the wedding expenses and the loans. They said they also returned the Rolex watch. But to federal investigators, those actions did not cancel out acts they considered to be criminal.
The McDonnells’ defense team has come up with a strategy that plays to the weakness of Virginia’s official ethics laws. They assert that it was Maureen McDonnell, not the ex-governor, who was responsible for the actions connected to Jonnie Williams. They say Virginia regulations on behavior by officials don’t apply to spouses.
“The most important point is to focus on the notion that Maureen McDonnell did not conspire with Bob McDonnell, and that Jonnie Williams got nothing more than any motivated Virginia businessman should get from a governor – help promoting a Virginia product that the governor appeared to believe in,” Chambers said.
To try to make that more convincing, the ex-governor’s lawyers have portrayed Maureen McDonnell as a cold, difficult, even unstable person who had lost her affections for her husband. She turned instead to an infatuation with Williams, who allegedly responded with money and gifts.
But on the witness stand, Williams threw cold water on that story, saying “I didn’t know she had any interest in me until this past week. No, I’ve never had any contact with Mrs. McDonnell, any physical contact. Period.”
Close personal relationship
However, evidence indicates that Maureen McDonnell and Williams had a close personal relationship, having been seen together numerous times at events and elsewhere. And the court was told that the two of them made more than 1,200 phone calls and text messages to each other between April 2011 and February 2013.
As part of that “estranged, unstable wife” legal positioning, the ex-governor testified that he moved out of their house in July, shortly before the trial began.
"I didn’t want to go home,” he told the court. “I didn’t have the emotional capacity to go home.”
The ex-governor’s lawyers said they if he did assist Williams, it was only part of his role as Virginia’s chief executive to promote jobs and economic growth in the state.
The case has yet to go to the jury, which is made up of 12 citizens picked before the trial began.
And that jury selection process will matter greatly when those dozen people soon decide whether Robert, or Maureen McDonnell – or both of them – are guilty of the federal charges against them.
“The prosecution,” Attorney Jacob Frenkel told Fox News, “wants jurors who are going to be offended by graft, who are offended by people who have their hand out.”
But Frenkel added, “On the other hand, what the defense wants are jurors who are going to be sympathetic, [who] view the McDonnells as popular, effective public officials.”