Bob McDonnell Trial Opens On A Pathetic And Sordid Note

The trial of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife opened yesterday, and it sounded more like a soap opera than a legal proceeding.

Bob McDonnell Maureen McDonnell

The first day of the trial of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen on charges related to gifts that the two accepted from a Virginia businessman while McDonnell was in office took the case down a road that few expected, indicating that we’re looking at something more akin to a soap opera than a straightforward corruption trial over the next several weeks:

RICHMOND, Va. — Former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and his wife, Maureen, on trial for conspiring to use his office for personal enrichment, outlined an unexpected defense on Tuesday: Their marriage was so broken that they did not communicate enough to conspire about anything.

In opening arguments in the couple’s corruption trial in federal court here, their lawyers made clear that they planned to rely on the sordid details of their unhappy union as the basis of their legal defense. It was the first time the McDonnells’ version of events had been heard in a widely publicized case that for months has been characterized by the lengthy indictment against them, which charges the couple with accepting more than $165,000 in cash and luxury gifts from a Virginia businessman.

Ms. McDonnell, her lawyer said, had a “crush” on the businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the prosecutors’ star witness, who the government said would detail the designer clothing, vacations, golf rounds and cash he provided in exchange for the governor’s help in promoting his company, which made a dietary supplement.

Mr. Williams was a frequent visitor to the Executive Mansion, where he and Ms. McDonnell would meet privately. He was known as “Maureen’s favorite playmate,” the lawyer, William A. Burck, told jurors. “Maureen McDonnell and Jonnie Williams had a relationship some would consider improper for two people not married.”

Over two years, Ms. McDonnell and Mr. Williams exchanged 1,200 phone calls and texts.

The government said that for Mr. Williams, it was about making money. Jessica Aber, the assistant United States attorney trying the case, said: “For Mr. Williams, this was a business transaction. He was paying for help with his company.”

According to both sides, Mr. Williams gained access to the governor by befriending the state’s first lady, spending about $19,000 on a New York City shopping spree for designer clothes and accessories, and buying a $6,500 Rolex watch for her to present to her husband.

The motives of Mr. Williams, a serial entrepreneur known variously as a super salesman and someone whose businesses repeatedly ran afoul of government regulators, are likely to be front and center in the trial.

If convicted on all counts, the McDonnells face more than 20 years in prison. Mr. McDonnell, limited to one term under state law, left office in January.

Defense lawyers said Mr. Williams repeatedly changed his account of his relationship with the McDonnells — first denying he sought anything in return for his generosity and later saying they had “an arrangement” — after the government promised him immunity in a separate case involving his company, formerly named Star Scientific. Mr. Williams was being investigated for possible securities and tax violations over a $10 million transaction at Star Scientific, Mr. Burck said.

“Why did his story change so much?” Mr. Burck said. “Because it gets him a get-out-of- jail card worth $10 million.”

Prosecutors do not portray Mr. Williams as an angel. Ms. Aber described him dismissively as “a vitamin salesman.” But she alleged a quid pro quo between Mr. Williams’s gifts to the McDonnells and the governor’s actions on his behalf. She presented a text message from Mr. McDonnell to Mr. Williams in May 2012 reading, “Per voice mail, would like to see if you could extend another 20k loan for this year.”

Mr. Williams’s response: “Done.”

Another time, after thanking Mr. Williams for funds to help cover expenses for some real estate investments, Mr. McDonnell sent an email to his policy director just six minutes later telling him to meet to discuss how to advance Mr. Williams’s products.

The aide’s reply: “We need to be careful with this issue.”

Mr. McDonnell’s defense argued such interventions were not improper; they are what all elected officials do to promote state businesses. “To criminalize this bedrock principle,” John Brownlee, one of the former governor’s lawyers, said, “would make felons of virtually every person who’s held public office.”

He made clear he would make Mr. McDonnell’s character central to his defense, calling him “a man of integrity” who was an Army veteran and a lifelong public servant.

He promised jurors the former governor would “take that chair right there” and detail his failed marriage, as a way of showing how his wife had become vulnerable to the ingratiating Mr. Williams.

“She was angry for not having enough money, she was angry at him for not spending enough time at home with her, and she hated him for not being available,” Mr. Brownlee said of Ms. McDonnell, as the former first couple sat at the same table with their separate legal teams.

“Bob and Maureen’s communication broke down almost entirely,” Mr. Brownlee said, with Mr. McDonnell looking on, his eyes grim and his expression wan.

“This tore the marriage apart, and it created a rift so wide an outsider — in this case a man — could invade and poison the marriage,” Mr. Brownlee said.

Virginia political blogger Peter Galuszka summed up the entire sordid affair quite well:

William Burck, lawyer for  Maureen McDonnell, said in his opening argument in a trial that Virginia’s Former First Lady who has been indicted no 14 corruption charges along with her former governor husband was “collateral damage” in a deeply troubled marriage. She had developed a “crush” on the businessman who had given her and her husband more than $150,000 in loans, gifts and cash.

“Their marriage had broken down,” Burck said. “They were barely on speaking terms,” Burck said. Ms. McDonnell was angry and frustrated that her husband had been working 16-hour days in public service for 20 plus years and had little to show for it. They had five children. Big debt. Bob wasn’t paying attention to her.

As John L. Brownlee, McDonnell’s lawyer, said, McDonnell’s hard public service work “took a toll on his family and a terrible toll on his wife. He was not nearly as successful as a husband. He tried to keep from the public the most painful aspects of his marriage. He never humiliated her. He never scorned her.”

In pops Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a smooth-talking entrepreneur pushing a new anti-aging cream made in part from tobacco plants (although his firm, Star Scientific, had lost a couple hundred million over the previous decade.) Brownlee described the star witness for the prosecution as a “master manipulator.”

“This marriage broke apart and an outsider, another man, would invade and poison their marriage,” Brownlee said.

At one point, Maureen was said to have “hated” Bob who wrote a lengthy email to her trying to reconcile. In fact, Brownlee said, the Governor will read the email when he goes on the jury stand during the trial that is expected to last at least five weeks. When McDonnell sent the email, however, “that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests.”

One could get snarky about this seemingly over-the-top soap opera. But no one in the courtroom seemed to be smirking. It is strange enough to be at a trial like this in a place like Virginia that considers itself above the petty corruption that plagues other states. It is even stranger to hear such excruciatingly personal and painful things about the state’s top former executive and his wife.

It could be that a “throw Maureen under the bus” strategy may work to get both of them off. After all, she wasn’t a public official and could do what she wanted as far as gifts. The prosecution’s opening statement drew a rather detailed and concise outline of just what and when the McDonnells solicited Williams’ largesse, right down to the “thank you” emails when money arrived in the bank to Maureen’s cell phone snap shot of Bob wearing slick, wraparound sunglasses while driving Williams’ Ferrari.

Giving the McDonnell’s the benefit of the doubt, I have to say I’ve heard this kind of story before among long-married couples suffering through middle age as their children are ready to fly away. Their stories may not be dramatic but I’ve got to admit that Bob McDonnell never seemed to exhibit such grabby behavior before.

Even assuming that they are true, none of these revelations about the McDonnell’s marriage is necessarily relevant to the legal charges against them, of course. The fact that a deteriorating marriage and the desire to satisfy his wife’s desires for a more secure financial future may have motivated McDonnell to develop a close relationship with Williams that resulted in him receiving everything from a Rolex watch and free trips to a gift that covered nearly the entire cost of the McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding at the Governor’s Mansion doesn’t mean that any laws were broken. It does, however, provide context to the story that had been missing ever since it started becoming public some two years ago now. It also at least partly answers the question of why McDonnell, who had never had a history of being the kind of politician who would develop these kinds of relationships with the well-heeled, would let himself get caught up with a guy who seems pretty clearly to be a rather obvious flim-flam artist interested in getting as much out of the state as he possibly can. If nothing else, it makes the story even more bizarre than it seemed at the beginning and guarantees that this trial, which is expected to last through the end of August, will be as much personal soap opera as it will be about rather dry facts about what gifts the McDonnell’s received from Williams at what point in time.

As things stand, I have no idea how this case will end. Many people in McDonnell’s camp, including a bipartisan group of former Virginia Attorneys General, have asserted that even if all the factual allegations the couple are true, they didn’t actually break any laws in what they did. In the case of Maureen McDonnell specifically, its hard to see exactly what laws she broke given the fact that she wasn’t a government official and, most specifically, wasn’t covered by any of the disclosure laws that are at the heart of the allegations against her and her husband. In the Indictment that began this case, the Federal Prosecutors asserted that McDonnell and his wife violated a number of Federal laws relating to conspiracy and wire fraud in an effort to hide their “scheme,” but as many legal analysts have observed, it is quite an odd world when one can be charged with a crime under Federal law for allegedly trying to hide something that isn’t illegal to begin with. Indeed, if the McDonnell’s are convicted at the end of all of this I would expect we’ll see a long period of appeals by both Defendants.

Running parallel to the legal side of this story, though, there has always been the personal aspect of it. When he was elected Governor of Virginia in 2009, the same year that Chris Christie won a close election over Jon Corzine in New Jersey, Bob McDonnell was seen as a potential future star in the Republican Party on the national level, most especially because he had managed to win handily in Virginia just one year after Barack Obama had become the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win the state in a Presidential election. As 2012 got closer, there was speculation about him being on the Republican ticket and, while that didn’t happen, he was named as the head of the GOP’s Platform Committee at the convention, and he played a big role in the General Election race from the day that Mitt Romney chose to name his Vice-Presidential running mate at a rally in the Commonwealth. There was even talk that McDonnell could be the one Republican capable of challenging Mark Warner for the Senate in 2014.

All of that quickly came crashing down as the revelations about McDonnell’s relationship with Williams slowly trickled out and, now, it looks like the entire story is going to become even more sordid. For a state like Virginia, which still likes to pretend that there is a certain gentility

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Stan says:

    If I remember correctly, before his election as governor McDonnell was known as a strong social conservative. Sort of like Henry Hyde, with his history of adultery, one of the Republican kingpins in the fight to impeach Bill Clinton; or Newt Gingrich, ditto; or Bob Livingston from Louisiana, ditto again; or J. Strom Thurmond, with his belief in pure white Southern womanhood and his unacknowledged African-American daughter. The list is endless. It’s great comic relief, but I’d enjoy it more if I weren’t an American.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    her husband had been working 16-hour days in public service for 20 plus years

    Who knew it was that hard to keep gov’t from ever doing anything constructive?

    (now back to finish the post)

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Ah yes, the old “I may be as corrupt as Ferdinand Marcos but don’t you feel sorry for me” defense.

    ( just to note, one doesn’t have to break the law, in order to be corrupt. In fact, most times it helps not to.)

  4. michael reynolds says:

    Let me just take this opportunity to explain the depth of stupidity in conservative morality.

    1) The magic book says “thou shalt not commit adultery.”

    2) If you do: hell fire.

    3) This is so important that government must be used as a tool to enforce the whole shalt not thing, in particular as regards birth control and abortion.

    4) So you commit adultery anyway.

    5) And explain it away ’cause I was working really hard. Working hard doing what? Working hard ramming my hypocritical morality down everyone’s throat and using my hypocrisy to gain power by attacking liberals. . .

    Liberals who. . .

    1) Agree that people should not commit adultery.

    2) But know that they will.

    3) And thus seek to minimize the damage by supporting women’s rights to birth control and abortion and by preaching that this isn’t just on the woman.

    Again and again we see the same theme: Conservatives do not understand reality, do not try to adapt to reality, cannot get it through cement idiot heads that the better plan is to minimize the damage of transgressions.

    Conservatives are just basically dumb.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds: In fairness to conservatives, George Lakoff makes the point that it’s not that conservatives are dumb. They’re perfectly capable of thinking things through to logical conclusions. They just don’t. It’s not the way they look at the world. Their default is think in terms of simple morality. GWB is the poster boy.

  6. edmondo says:

    Former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and his wife, Maureen, on trial for conspiring to use his office for personal enrichment,

    That’s illegal? I thought it was de rigueur.

  7. Wait a second, Bob McDonnell is being represented by John Brownlee?

    Christ, he’s doomed.

  8. michael reynolds says:


    Actually I think you’re right, and it’s much more in line with my usual approach which is to assume that conservatives aren’t exactly stupid, just incapable of imagination. Imagination-blindness explains the almost total lack of conservative “creatives” as well their inability to walk things forward in time and see what to any liberal is blindingly obvious.

  9. stonetools says:

    Huh, I guess Ms. McDonnell didn’t read all those many Bible verses condemning avarice, stating that love of money was the root of all evil, and urging the rich to lay up treasure in heaven by giving to the poor. Maybe the Bible is right in this case :

    “Pride goeth before a fall, and an haughty spirit before destruction.”

  10. JohnMcC says:

    There is a sort of tragedy here. It doesn’t come up to MacBeth but for the persons involved it must be an amazingly heartbreaking story.

    So it is not in the spirit of snark or of kicking someone who is down that I present the title of Gov McDonnell’s MA thesis (Master of Arts in Public Policy & Juris Doctor in Law) (which btw is some 60 pgs):

    The Republican Party’s Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Considering that Ms. McDonnell is still married to her husband, I don’t think the “yes we were married but relations were so bad we didn’t speak to each other so no, no conspiracy” is going to fly. Especially if the money ended up in her husband’s pocket.

    The only way I can see it working is if the money went completely into her own bank account and she used it.

    There’s going to be a lot of “he should have known”. The IRS allow spouses to file petitions essentially saying they were dimwitted boobs who just signed off of what was shoved under their noses and didn’t know anything about any of the family finances, but it’s sort of hard for Mr. McDonnell to claim the equivalent at the same time while striding around as the Big He-Man masterfully ruling the family and governing the state.

  12. beth says:

    @JohnMcC: I hate to kick when someone’s down but I’m enjoying the fact that Governor Transvaginal Ultrasound is getting a good, solid unwanted probe.

  13. @Timothy Watson:

    I’m assuming the legal team is bigger than just one man.

  14. @beth:

    You do realize that McDonnell came out against that bill, right? It was being pushed by a particularly far right member of the General Assembly.

    And it never passed.

  15. beth says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Oh please, he backed off only after a huge outcry against the procedure. And he did sign a mandatory ultrasound bill – in essence forcing women to get and pay for an unnecessary medical procedure, one not mandated by her doctor but by her state representative who I bet has much less medical training than the doctor.

  16. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    He came out against the bill only after a major outcry by liberal women nation wide, so, no, he doesn’t get credit for that.
    He and his mini-Me Cucchinelli were fine with the law and indeed he signed it:

    Amid continued protests from Democrats, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell on Wednesday signed into law a controversial bill requiring Virginia women to undergo an ultrasound procedure prior to having an abortion.

    Thank DEMOCRATS for the reversal of that law-you know, the party you always refuse to vote for?

  17. MikeSJ says:

    I feel that I’m missing some pertinent information here. The Gov’s wife had a “crush” on Mr. Big Businessman?

    What in the world is that supposed to mean? Did they pass notes in study hall?

    There better be a lot more sleaze and immorality to this story or I’m going to be very disappointed. And the Gov himself? Mr. Big Time Social Conservative…when is his Rent Boy or stripper girlfriend or both going to show up?


  18. James Young says:

    Unlike you to leave a thought unfinished, Doug. Are you going to complete that last sentence? Or is it there just to see if anyone is paying attention?

  19. stonetools says:


    I feel that I’m missing some pertinent information here. The Gov’s wife had a “crush” on Mr. Big Businessman?

    “Hey girl, I have this big old bank account here and I’m not afraid to use it. You want me whip it out?”

    Ms. McDonnell, chest heaving: “Oh will you please? Oh my God, I didn’t realise they got that big!” She unbuttons her skirt…
    (Fade to black…)

  20. gVOR08 says:


    all those many Bible verses condemning avarice

    I get the impression those verses aren’t in the Fundie New Testament. In fact, I tend to think of Fundies as functionally Jewish, as they only seem to ever reference the Old Testament. Except, of course, for the constant references to “Jaaaysus”.

  21. stonetools says:


    They got lots of those verses in the OT too! Listen to Amos:

    1Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” 2 The Sovereign LORD has sworn by his holiness: “The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks. 3 You will each go straight out through breaks in the wall, and you will be cast out toward Harmon, ” declares the LORD.

    Conservatives have bowlderized their Bible to an amazing degree, excising all those verses that talk about defendiung the poor and weak and making Jesus into a gun-loving America Firster.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:


    Huh, I guess Ms. McDonnell didn’t read all those many Bible verses condemning avarice, stating that love of money was the root of all evil, and urging the rich to lay up treasure in heaven by giving to the poor.

    Oh, she read them alright, that’s why she kept begging him for more money. She was just trying to save his soul.

  23. rudderpedals says:

    A cuckold defense would be clever, but oh so humiliating for the governor. Is it going to be a jury trial Doug?

  24. KM says:


    I get the impression those verses aren’t in the Fundie New Testament. In fact, I tend to think of Fundies as functionally Jewish, as they only seem to ever reference the Old Testament. Except, of course, for the constant references to “Jaaaysus”.

    It’s amazing that for a group that prides itself on Biblical literacy how very few have ever actually read it. I once got into an hour long argument with a Fundie friend over Proverbs 31:10 “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies” My grandmother had passed and I was selecting the readings for the Mass. This woman had the gall to tell me I had the verse wrong since it was pearls – she know this, she asserted, because her mother gave her an expensive pearl necklace to honor her “maidenly qualities”. I kindly pointed out she was confusing it with Matthew 13’s “pearl of great price”, she got incredibly offended and a painful hour later informed me that maybe the Catholics can’t read the true Gospel correctly but the King James is inerrant and pulled out her phone to look it up on her Bible app! When she saw it was in OT Proverbs (and indeed rubies), her response was “Well, who reads that anyways! Only NT counts!” and flounced off.

    They think everything is in the Gospels because “Jaaaysus” must have said it. Why else would they know it then? The OT doesn’t apply to them!!

  25. dennis says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You know, mr, I read a little ditty yesterday where a creationist proclaimed that atheists lack imagination. Oh, the irony, I thought.

  26. Janis Gore says:

    @dennis: Dennis, It doesn’t take imagination. It takes experience. I’m a journalist. That’s my POV.

  27. Janis Gore says:

    I’m also a scientist. When I’ve researched things for 50 years, I guess I’m ready to say something.

    That’s what I did yesterday. How y’all?

  28. Janis Gore says:

    Dennis, I don’t mean that scientifically. I mean, how y’all. How is your mother? Is she well? How are your children?

  29. dennis says:

    @Janis Gore:

    Family is fine, Janis, thank you for asking. I hope you’re doing better.

  30. Janis Gore says:

    Thank you, dear.

  31. Janis Gore says:
  32. ETB says:

    @michael reynolds:

    So…you say….Democrats? You?…

    1) Agree that people should not commit adultery.

    2) But “you” know that they will.

    3) And thus (“you”) seek to minimize the damage by supporting women’s rights to birth control and abortion and by preaching that this isn’t just on the woman.

    My question is…do Only ” adulterous” females (or morally bereft unmarried females seeking adulterous men) engage in sex, choose to use birth control or make a (frequently unilateral) decision for pregnancy termination?

    I’m not certain adultery has much to do with women’s rights, birth control or abortion.

    But, it Good to know you got my back.