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McDonnell trial: Former governor describes broken marriage, fun in a Ferrari

By Travis Fain tfain@dailypress.com

Daily Press

8:43 PM EDT, August 21, 2014

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RICHMOND – Bob McDonnell took a jury to the low point of his marriage Thursday, then turned to the long trend of generosity that landed him and his wife in federal court.

His second day of testimony was intensely personal, part rationlization, part denial and part mea culpa.

The ex-governor’s wife, Maureen, watched as he dissected their all-but-destroyed marriage. He said he lives with his priest right now, unwilling to go home each night and rehash a trial that hinges, in part, on his wife’s apparent shortcomings.

He talked about the Ferrari. He talked about the Rolex. He said he was blindsided by the extent of his wife’s relationship with Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the wealthy campaign donor who federal prosecutors say bribed the couple.

He talked about an email he sent his wife on Labor Day 2011, after his busy schedule and her angry outbursts had overwhelmed the marriage.

“I love you,” the email began. “Yesterday was one of the lowest points in my life.”

The McDonnell marriage was cracking long before he won the 2009 governor’s race, based on the story Bob McDonnell told Thursday. He was gone a lot, first for legislative sessions as a House delegate, then as attorney general, then on the campaign for governor.

Maureen McDonnell developed a separate life of sorts, he said, and a small business selling dietary supplements not unlike Anatabloc, Williams’ unproven wonder-product that figures so heavily in this case.

Over the years, the couple’s conversations became more and more about logistics: five children and a busy schedule as the governor took a national political profile.

When they moved into the governor’s mansion, Maureen McDonnell grew anxious, lashed out at staff and accused her husband’s most loyal aides of working against her, he said. There were nights he worked late because “I just couldn't come home and listen to that,” he said.

McDonnell said he took time off that Labor Day weekend just for his wife.

But she rebuffed him. He spent Saturday alone for the most part, he said. They went to church on Sunday. He remembered thinking “maybe this was the end of our marriage.”

“You tell me all the time how bad your life has been with me and how unhappy you are,” he wrote that Labor Day Monday, in a last-ditch effort of sorts emailed to his wife.

He told her that she didn't understand how deeply she cut him, and others, with her tongue. He said her yelling left him emotionally and spiritually exhausted, and that his prayers about their marriage had gone unanswered.

He closed the letter, “Let me know if you want to talk softly. Bob.”

Henry Asbill, one of McDonnell's lead attorneys, asked the former governor if he got a response.

“No,” he said quietly.

McDonnell testified that he doesn’t think his wife ever had a physical relationship with Williams, who is now the government’s star witness against the couple. But an emotional one? Yes.

McDonnell said he was shocked when cellphone records unearthed for this trial showed hundreds of calls and texts between the two. His defense, and hers, hinges on her being the primary actor with Williams, leaving the governor unaware of at least some of her efforts on behalf of Anatabloc, which Williams brought to market in 2011.

McDonnell said Thursday that Williams and his company, Star Scientific, asked him for very little. Less than many Virginia businesses, in fact. Anatabloc seemed to have promise, and Star was a Virginia company. Setting meetings with state officials was nothing the governor hadn’t done for hundreds of other people, he said.

Maureen McDonnell ocassionally travelled with Williams, promoting Anatabloc, but the governor said he didn’t know how big these events were, or that she was throwing the weight of the governor’s office behind the product.

Nor did he know that Williams bought her nearly $20,000 worth of clothes, shoes and accessories during a New York shopping trip, he testified. He saw shopping bags, he said. He knew Williams was meeting his wife and her chief of staff to “show them some New York stores,” but said he expected to find purchases on family credit card bills.

He dubbed the $15,000 Williams contributed toward daughter Cailin McDonell’s wedding “OK.” It seemed a generous gift from an obviously wealthy man who had already donated his private jet repeatedly to the governor’s political campaigns, and whose company his wife seemed to enjoy.

The golf clubs and bags Williams gave his sons some months later seemed “a little much,” he said. The boys didn’t return them, though, despite their father’s suggestion. When a bag showed up for McDonnell, customized with his alma mater’s logo, the governor kept that as well.

McDonnell said he didn’t initially know about the $50,000 Williams lent to Maureen McDonnell in May 2011. Williams testified that he discussed this loan with the governor before he handed over a check, but said he didn't remember the particulars of that conversation.

McDonnell said Thursday that is “absolutely false.”

Williams has an immunity deal in this case and for unrelated stock transactions. He’s a target of a pending civil suit brought by Star shareholders. The defense says he’s lying about many things.

The first lady used this loan to pay off $20,000 in credit card debt and to buy 30,000 shares of Star Scientific stock. McDonnell said he questioned the wisdom of this, but didn’t tell his wife to return the money.

He’d pushed her the year before to spend $25,000 from her father’s estate on credit card bills. She had wanted to buy stock for the children. McDonnell’s father had given him and his wife stock as a wedding gift, and she wanted to replicate that.

She was in tears, McDonnell said, when she slapped the check down and told him to pay the bills. In hindsight, McDonnell said, he was wrong. He didn’t have the heart to force her hand again.

The stock wouldn’t go to the children for more than a year and a half, though, despite daughter Cailin’s wedding in June 2011. Maureen McDonnell sold the shares at the end of 2011, in a move prosecutors say was timed to avoid listing it on disclosure forms.

She repurchased it, then moved it into her children’s names at the end of 2012, again at the disclosure deadline.

In July 2011, the McDonnell family vacationed at Williams’ Smith Mountain Lake house. The family had travelled there several years, McDonnell testified, staying in homes provided by various donors.

The governor said he didn't ask Williams to deliver his Ferrari to the house that year, as Williams says he did. Maureen McDonnell, the governor said, told him the family was doing Williams a favor, returning the car to Richmond for Williams' daughter.

Asked why he drove it himself, McDonnell said he hadn’t driven in years. The state police handled that.

“At some point, I’m entitled to be normal, to drive,” he said. “My kids egged me on a little bit. … And, listen, it was a Ferrari.”

For Christmas 2011, McDonnell’s wife gave him a Rolex watch in a Movado box, though. Movado is a less expensive brand, but far from cheap.

The watch didn’t have the usual paperwork, either, McDonnell said. Williams testified that he bought the watch in California at Maureen McDonnell’s request, and had it engraved “71st Governor of Virginia.” The governor just figured his wife was being nice, making up for the tension in their lives by spending some of the $36,000 a year she made then for sitting on a charitable foundation board.

McDonnell said he rarely wore the watch, which was too gaudy for his taste. He said he doesn’t know how a picture of him flashing it for the camera ended up in a text to Williams.

Williams has said the governor sent it to him. McDonnell said that’s false. Phone records are unclear. From the context, it appears Maureen McDonnell took the picture in the back of a state vehicle.

“That picture was never on my phone,” the governor said Thursday.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.