RICHMOND, Va. — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's marriage was broken and his wife developed a crush on a businessman who lavished her with expensive gifts and attention, an attorney for the first lady said Tuesday during the couple's corruption trial.
A prosecutor said the former first couple betrayed the public's trust by promoting the businessman's company so they could line their pockets with "secret gifts and cash."
The McDonnells are charged in a 14-count indictment with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his dietary supplements company. If convicted, they could face decades in prison.
Maureen McDonnell's lawyer William A. Burck said during opening statements that the former first lady was "duped" by Williams into thinking he cared for her. Williams filled a "void" in her life, and she and her husband were pretending to be a happy couple although their marriage had "broken down" long ago, Burck said.
"There were barely on speaking terms," Burck said.
The McDonnells have arrived separately at federal court over the past two days. Their attorneys sought to have them tried separately, but the judge refused. The former first lady's attorneys have suggested that she was not an elected or paid official and therefore not tied to the same scrutiny as her husband.
Burck said Williams and Maureen frequently exchanged text messages and phone calls, and that Williams often visited the Executive Mansion. Burck said the pair had a relationship that "some people would consider inappropriate" and that one potential witness may describe Williams as Maureen McDonnell's "favorite playmate." He did not indicate that their relationship was physical.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber told the jury that the luxury gifts and frequent text messaging between Williams and Maureen McDonnell were "always just a business relationship and nothing more."
Bob McDonnell, a once-rising star in the Republican party, received a six-figure salary and other perks as the most powerful elected official in Virginia, and had a duty "not to sell the power and influence of his office to the highest bidder," Aber said.
"This case is about the McDonnells lining their pockets with secret gifts and cash," Aber said. "Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell knew what Mr. Williams wanted and gave it to him."
Legal experts have said one of the key questions for the jury will be whether McDonnell believed it was criminal to accept the gifts — including a Rolex watch, designer clothing, golf trips and $15,000 for a daughter's wedding expenses — while supporting Williams' efforts to grow a Virginia business.
Defense attorneys have signaled in court papers that part of their strategy will be to put Williams' character on trial. They have said the case boils down to "a credibility contest" between a former governor with a distinguished career in public service and a businessman whose companies have been investigated by regulators and sued by shareholders, and who is now getting a sweetheart deal for cooperating with prosecutors.
Burck said Williams cannot but trusted, and had changed his version of events several times in order to receive a full immunity deal from prosecutors. Williams needs immunity because he may have illegally sold $10 million worth of Star Scientific shares to a friend in secret, according to Burck.