RICHMOND — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s marriage had broken and his wife developed a crush on a wealthy CEO who heaped expensive gifts and attention on her, defense attorneys said Tuesday in a startling opening to the couple’s federal corruption trial.
The disclosures of a dysfunctional relationship from attorneys for both Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, reveal a defense strategy that will attempt to undercut suggestions of a conspiracy on the part of the couple, who are accused of taking $150,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for promoting his business interests.
Also revealed as the trial got underway was that the former GOP governor would testify in his own defense.
But the most stunning details were clearly those of the estrangement between the former governor and first lady during his time in office.
“She said she hated him,” Mr. Brownlee said.
Mr. McDonnell — whom Mr. Brownlee was quick to characterize as “an innocent man” — was described as a good governor because he was always working, logging 4,600 hours away from home in his four-year term and working 16-hour days. One of Mr. McDonnell’s daughters testified Tuesday that she went through the governor’s scheduler to make sure he wouldn’t be busy working during her wedding.
“It took a toll,” Mr. Brownlee said. “It took a toll on his family, and it took a terrible toll on his wife. In his life, something had to give, and it was his marriage.”
He referred to an email from Mr. McDonnell to his wife in September 2011 that will be read in court in which the governor begged Mrs. McDonnell to help save the marriage. The lawyer said it fell on “blind eyes and deaf ears” because Mrs. McDonnell was “distracted” with other interests.
Mrs. McDonnell’s attorney, William Burck, said that at the time in question, the two were barely on speaking terms, making it easy for Mr. Williams to “swoop in” and shower Mrs. McDonnell with the attention she was seeking.
“You’ll even hear evidence that she had a crush on Jonnie Williams,” he told the jury, adding that evidence will show a relationship “that some would consider inappropriate” for two people who are not married to each other.
The projected image of an overworked husband neglecting a wife increasingly unhappy with their marriage stands in stark contrast to the public front the McDonnells put on in reacting to the 14-count indictment handed up in January. Mrs. McDonnell stood by her husband’s side as he rebutted the government’s case, and they were joined by their children as well.
Jessica Aber, arguing for the prosecution, told the jury that “you will hear that this was always just a business relationship and nothing more.”
In her opening, Ms. Aber outlined a time line of gifts and loans Mr. Williams gave to the McDonnells that she said were associated with meetings at which both Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Williams were present, including a meeting at the governor’s mansion in Richmond.