RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WAVY) — Former Gov. Bob McDonnell wrote a long, forlorn email to his wife three years ago trying to save his marriage, calling her his “soulmate,” yet he also said he grew so weary of her yelling that he began taking refuge in his office late at night rather than going home.
McDonnell testified extensively about his troubled marriage Thursday at his public corruption trial. He and his wife, Maureen, are charged with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his company’s dietary supplements.
The McDonnells say their marriage was broken and that they were barely speaking, let alone engaged in a criminal conspiracy.
Since 1991, Bob McDonnell admitted he has been married to his political career. Testimony revealed McDonnell was away from Richmond 470 days between 2011 and 2012.
He choked up at various times, speaking in a melancholy tone and taking long pauses before answering questions from his lawyer. He became particularly emotional as he described what led him to write his wife on Labor Day 2011, after she had rejected his efforts to spend the weekend with her.
“Friday night she was angry, usually over something small. I told her, ‘I took off this weekend to spend time with you.’ I was hurt, and upset with her. I ended up spending Friday night and Saturday away from her. Then we went to church on Sunday,” McDonnell said. “I was heartbroken,” he said, and worried “that this was maybe the end of my marriage.”
He began the email “I love you,” but said the weekend “was one of the lowest points of my life.”
He apologized for being absent, but said “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,” he wrote.
Maureen McDonnell never responded to his email, he testified. Meanwhile, he said he learned while preparing for the trial that she had been in contact with Williams four different times that day.
At first, he thought they shared a natural bond over dietary supplements — Maureen McDonnell had sold nutritional supplements for decades as a part-time business. She was crushed when he told her it would be inappropriate to continue selling vitamins as first lady, he said.
McDonnell testified that he doesn’t believe his wife had an affair with Williams, but that they had developed an intense, emotional connection, of which he had been oblivious.
The former governor’s lawyers have argued McDonnell did nothing more for Williams than he would for any other Virginia businessman. And on Thursday, McDonnell repeated again, he gave no preferential treatment to Williams.
McDonnell said in April 2011, he told his wife they should start entertaining one or two couples at a time for dinner for the sake of “some sense of normalcy.” Maureen suggested inviting Williams and his wife, Celeste.
“We were friendly,” he said. “I wouldn’t say at that point we were yet friends.”
He said his daughter Cailin dropped by, and the topic of her upcoming wedding came up. A couple of weeks later, McDonnell said he learned Williams wanted to give Cailin a wedding gift — $15,000 to cover catering costs.
“I had to think about it,” McDonnell said. Ultimately, he concluded that it was a gift to his daughter, so it was OK. “Mr. Williams seemed to have the capacity. We only knew him about 15 months. If that’s what he wanted to provide for my daughter, I thought that was okay,” he said.
The check is one of the gifts prosecutors said the McDonnells received and failed to disclose. According to previous testimony and evidence, Bob McDonnell had signed the catering contract and made two payments, and a refund check of $7,000 from the catering company was made out to Maureen McDonnell.
Bob said he had assumed the refund check had been given to his daughter Cailin as a wedding present, but after Maureen knew she was being investigated, she told Bob she kept the $7,000.
“‘Maureen, why did you do this? The wedding gift was intended not for you, not for me, but for our daughter,’” McDonnell claimed he said to his wife after finding out. “I thought it was a matter of fundamental integrity,” he told the court Thursday.
On the stand, McDonnell reiterated he did not know about the $50,000 loan Williams gave Maureen, until much later. That testimony conflicts with what Williams said on the stand — that he went to Bob McDonnell first to let him know before giving the loan to Maureen.
McDonnell also testified that he often heard Maureen McDonnell yelling at her assistants, usually over little things: “I heard her yelling at a staffer on the phone. I told her she can’t treat our staff like that. You have to love them. You can’t do that.”
He told her she shouldn’t treat governor’s mansion employees so badly. “She would yell at me, say I was taking the staff’s side, and I didn’t know what was going on over there,” McDonnell said.
The tension at the governor’s mansion and his futile attempts to smooth it over hurt his marriage, which was already strained by his frequent absences and his wife’s struggle with her public role as first lady, McDonnell said.
McDonnell said that early in his career, he devoted time to being a state legislator, Army Reservist and lawyer in private practice. He said his wife resented his long stretches away from the family and the tension escalated as his political career took off. Things got worse when the family moved from their longtime Virginia Beach home to Richmond after he became attorney general in 2006.
Speaking about the current state of their marriage, Bob McDonnell said he and Maureen do not communicate much and that they do not live together.
“I am living with my pastor at St. Patrick’s Church, since a week before the trial. There is no way I could go home and rehash the day with her. I need to be fresh and close to my legal team. I don’t have the ability to rehash everything with Maureen,” McDonnell said.
“In 38 years of public service, I never thought I’d be having to testify in a trial like this, so it is difficult,” he told reporters as he left the courthouse Thursday.