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.
John Brownlee, one of Mr. McDonnell’s attorneys, said that as Mrs. McDonnell’s anger and resentment and sadness grew, communications between the two broke down almost entirely.
“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.”
Mr. Brownlee said airing such affairs in open court “goes against every fiber” of Mr. McDonnell’s being “as a man, as a husband and as a father.”
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.
“He took a duty not to sell the power and influence of the office to the highest bidder,” she said of Mr. McDonnell.
The defense, meanwhile, tried to portray Mr. Williams as a man in danger of being brought up on charges associated with stock sales tied to his dietary supplement company, Star Scientific Inc., and who saw an opportunity to hand the federal government a “bigger fish” in Mr. McDonnell.
Mr. Burck likened Mr. Williams to an iPhone, with its newer versions akin to his changing stories being worked out to get a better deal for himself and a better case for the prosecution.
“The government trusts Jonnie Williams. But that doesn’t mean you have to,” he told the jury.
Mr. Williams has been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying.
Mrs. McDonnell’s lawyer argued that since she is a private citizen, she was incapable of using or attempting to use the governor’s office in any capacity to advance Mr. Williams’ interests. He also said that as a breast cancer survivor, Mrs. McDonnell has been and remains a health enthusiast who legitimately believed in Mr. Williams and his company, and that she even still holds stock in Star Scientific.
“Bob McDonnell is the ultimate target,” Mr. Burck said. “Maureen McDonnell is sitting here today as the collateral damage.”
After opening statements laid out what can be expected to be a weekslong trial, the prosecution got down to questioning their first witnesses Tuesday afternoon.
The queries surrounded a $15,000 check Mr. Williams used to pay expenses associated with the wedding of the McDonnells’ daughter, Cailin McDonnell Young.
The check was more than was still owed to the catering company when it was signed about two weeks before the June 2011 wedding.
Ryan Greer, an employee of the catering company, said he was instructed by the company’s owner not to tell anyone about the check and to issue a refund to Mrs. McDonnell for the difference.
Mrs. Young said she understood the check to be a wedding gift from Mr. Williams to her and her husband, even though she and her husband were trying to pay for as much of the wedding as possible themselves because “we didn’t really want this wedding to get out of control” and become some sort of “political mess.”
She said her mother first told her about the reimbursement check in February 2013, when Mrs. McDonnell also told her she had been questioned by the FBI. She said the governor was “very upset” with his wife and told Mrs. McDonnell it was her daughter’s gift, so the first lady gave it to her.
Mrs. Young wept on the stand after being shown pictures from her wedding, prompting Judge James R. Spencer to call a brief recess.
“Our wedding now has this black cloud over it,” she said. “You can’t look back at it with a happy memory.”
Mrs. Young also said it was her understanding that her mother planned to buy 1,000 shares of Star Scientific stock for each of her five children as a wedding gift when they got married. The two spoke about it in 2011, but Mrs. Young said she and her husband didn’t open an account in which to deposit the shares until December 2012.
Prosecutors argue that Mrs. McDonnell divested her shares strategically, including giving 1,000 shares apiece to her children at one point, and then repurchased some in order to skirt investment disclosure laws.