RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Attorneys for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife wrapped up their case Wednesday in the couple’s corruption trial, their defense featuring McDonnell’s testimony and the idea that the marriage was so chilly they could not have conspired together.
During McDonnell’s four-plus days on the witness stand, the defense presented a melancholic letter he wrote to his wife professing his love for her, apologizing for his shortcomings, complaining about hers, and begging her to work with him to save the marriage.
While Maureen McDonnell didn’t testify, defense witnesses talked about her infatuation and “mild obsession” with former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams.
The McDonnells went on trial in late July on charges of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Williams in exchange for helping promote his company’s dietary supplements. Closing arguments are likely to happen Friday, after prosecutors present rebuttal witnesses and attorneys from both sides hash out jury instructions.
On the witness stand, the ex-governor, once a rising star in the Republican Party who was widely considered a possible Mitt Romney running mate in 2012, acknowledged using poor judgment. He said he now regrets accepting the gifts from Williams, who was seeking state-backed research for his company’s tobacco-derived anti-inflammatory, Anatabloc.
Asked by defense attorney Henry Asbill if he risked his future by committing the crimes alleged in a 14-count indictment, McDonnell firmly responded: “No.”
In his letter to his wife on Labor Day 2011, McDonnell said he was lonely sometimes. “I want to be in love, not just watch movies about it,” he wrote.
The letter continued: “I am so spiritually and mentally exhausted from being yelled at. I don’t think you realize how you are affecting me and sometimes others with your tongue.”
He also testified that he got in the habit of working late to avoid going home and dealing with his wife’s rage. He moved out of the family home and into the rectory of a Catholic church for the duration of the trial for much the same reason.
On Wednesday, the couple’s eldest daughter said her parents’ marriage had been troubled for many years and her mom developed “a mild obsession” with Williams. Jeanine McDonnell said her parents rarely spoke to each other in private, going back decades. She also said her mother developed an unusually close friendship with Williams.
Bob McDonnell testified that he viewed Williams as a personal friend and was comfortable accepting his gifts because he never sought any favors from him.
Jeanine McDonnell made clear she no longer thinks highly of Williams, who earlier testified under immunity that he was not friends with the McDonnells and he spent lavishly on them only to gain acceptance for Anatabloc. The immunity agreement bars Williams’ prosecution not only for his dealings with the McDonnells, but also for potential securities violations.
The judge mildly rebuked Jeanine McDonnell when she said she returned a $10,000 check from Williams, intended as a housewarming present, “once we learned that Jonnie himself was a criminal.”
She said as far back as 20 years ago, her father was rarely home and her mother was left largely alone to raise the couple’s five kids. Jeanine McDonnell said she believed, even as a child, that her mother was depressed and that she took long baths and threw herself into soap operas to counter her loneliness.
Bob McDonnell had testified that his wife, who was called a “nutbag” by one of her former assistants, rejected marriage counseling, but eventually agreed to individual counseling and treatment.
When the McDonnells were able to create family time, Jeanine McDonnell said, her father devoted himself to his children, and his wife received lowest priority. It got worse as McDonnell’s career took off. Still, Jeanine McDonnell said, her parents were adept at putting up a good front in public.
“Any time they went in a public setting, it was like a switch flipped and they turned it on,” she said.
Prosecutors introduced into evidence photos of the couple holding hands. They also showed a May 2011 email in which Maureen McDonnell, preparing to join her husband on an international trip, wrote: “Can’t wait to be with you. XOXOXO!!!” He responded that he loved her, according to the email.
That was less than four months before Bob McDonnell sent his email lamenting the deterioration of their relationship.
April Niamtu, who said she was a longtime friend of Maureen McDonnell, testified early Wednesday. She described her friend as trusting and gullible and said she would often bite her nails. She said that Maureen worried she wouldn’t look the part of first lady.
Niamtu described an event that she and Maureen McDonnell attended in California with Williams. “We were there as his guests,” she said.
The first lady felt unprepared because Williams had asked her to speak at the event, Niamtu said. Later, prosecutors pointed out that Maureen McDonnell had made remarks at two similar events with Williams days earlier.
Niamtu testified that Williams and the first lady appeared to be “best buddies,” and said Maureen McDonnell never mentioned any romantic feelings for the businessman.
Defense attorneys for Maureen McDonnell later questioned Robert Ross, an investigator for Holland & Knight, the law firm with attorneys representing Bob McDonnell. He testified that phone records showed Bob McDonnell and Jonnie Williams exchanged 53 calls or text messages between April 2011 and February 2013. During the same time period, Maureen McDonnell and Jonnie Williams exchanged 1,349 calls or text messages, according to the records. Prosecutors later argued that phone records could not reflect landline calls or in-person conversations.
Judge James R. Spencer told the jury the prosecution expected to call its final witness on Thursday, and then he would meet with lawyers about jury instructions. He said it was possible the jury could hear closing arguments by Friday.
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