RICHMOND -- An attorney for former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said the former first couple’s marriage was broken by the stress of the governor’s office.
In opening statements of the couple’s federal corruption trial, Bob McDonnell's defense attorney John Brownlee told jurors that constant travel,16-hour work days and other stress of the governor’s office led Maureen to hate her husband.
Brownlee made the revelation to assert that the couple could not have conspired to commit the crimes that they are accused of because the pair weren’t speaking to each other at the time of the alleged crimes.
Brownlee also said businessman Jonnie Williams used the McDonnell's’s marital strife as an opportunity to befriend Maureen McDonnell and take advantage of her access to the governor’s mansion.
Williams is the former CEO of Star Scientific, a health supplement company, whose lavish gifts of fancy clothes, vacations and cash are at the center of the government’s charges against the McDonnells.
Attorneys for both of the McDonnells used much of their opening statements on Tuesday to attack Williams—the government’s star witness—and to push back on alleged crimes that prosecutors say the McDonnells committed because they were in need of money.
Together, the couple faces 14 charges, including charges of honest-services wire fraud, obtaining property under color of official right, making false statements and obstruction of official proceedings.
Defense attorneys say neither Bob nor Maureen McDonnell is guilty of the crimes and accused prosecutors of taking advantage of Williams to build a case against Virginia’s then-first couple.
Maureen McDonnell’s attorney, Bill Burck, told jurors that Williams had changed his version of his interactions with the McDonnells nine different times.
Each time, Burck, said, Williams’ story changed to help prosecutors and that he had been given total immunity in exchange for his testimony.
According to Burck, Williams began talking with federal investigators when they were looking into a deal he made to sell stock in his company in exchange for $10 million.
Brownlee, Bob McDonnell’s attorney, showed an excerpt of a note he said was written by the government’s lead investigator in 2010 that said “use Williams to go after McDonnells?”
In their opening statements, prosecutors acknowledged their investigation began after questions arose during an investigation into a chef at the executive mansion who was accused of stealing food.
During the course of the investigation, prosecutors say, investigators learned of gifts that Williams had made to Maureen McDonnell.
In her opening statement Tuesday morning, prosecutor Jessica Aber painted the McDonnells as a couple who conspired to help promote Williams’ business in exchange for cash and lavish gifts.
Aber tallied more than $120,000 in cash that the McDonnells accepted in loans and gifts—including a $15,000 check Williams wrote for the catering bill at the wedding of one of the McDonnell’s daughters—and other lavish items.
At one point, Aber put up a picture of Bob McDonnell driving Williams’ Ferrari on the way back to the governor’s mansion after a weekend away at Williams’ home along Smith Mountain Lake.
Aber told jurors that, all total, the McDonnells accepted more than $150,000 in gifts from Williams and tried to hide it while promoting a dietary supplement Williams was trying to market.
Brownlee countered the government’s opening argument by telling jurors that the former governor—who had spent decades in politics and was mentioned as a possible national candidate—would not throw away his career to pay part of a catering bill for his daughter’s wedding.
Brownlee said Bob McDonnell has nothing to hide and plans to take the stand in his own defense—something most defendants choose not to do.
“He will not hide from false accusations,” Brownlee said.