News Column

McDonnell trial: Former Gov. McDonnell testifies about his life, not yet about his marriage

August 21, 2014

By Travis Fain Tfain@dailypress.Com, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

Aug. 21--RICHMOND -- Former Gov. Bob McDonnell took the stand in his own defense Wednesday afternoon, speaking directly to jurors for the first time in the 18-day-old federal trial against him and his wife.

McDonnell eased into his testimony, laying out a short version of his life story in his calm and measured voice, and under questioning from one of his many attorneys. Then he made it clear: He didn't do anything for Star Scientific that he didn't do for other Virginia businesses.

In fact, he said, he often did less.

Obviously the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office see things differently. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, face bribery charges because they took more than $177,000 in loans and gifts from then Star CEO Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Williams got several meetings with state officials in return, the government alleges. He also got to invite people to two events at the governor's mansion and benefited, according to his own testimony, from a halo effect of credibility as the couple promoted Star's marquee product, the dietary supplement Anatabloc.

But McDonnell attorney Henry Asbill helped the governor tick off a lot of things Star didn't get. It didn't get a press conference, or a site visit, despite McDonnell doing hundreds of these during his four-year term.

It didn't get a line item in the budget, a $50-billion-a-year document the governor and his team get to write. It didn't get grants from any of the handful of funds the governor controls. It didn't get any state money at all, in fact, or hoped-for university support for clinical trials of Anatabloc.

"My administration did very little (for Star)," McDonnell testified, reaffirming testimony offered by several former administration officials.

"These mansion events were routine," he said. "Bare, basic, routine access to government."

Williams' name came up but once during the governor's time on the stand, which followed testimony from character witnesses who praised McDonnell's honesty and virtue. That included a college roommate from Notre Dame, now a priest and political professor at the school, and McDonnell's best friend from high school.

"Bob has never erred from the truth, to my knowledge," said Father Timothy Scully.

"One of the best human beings I know," added 46-year friend Joe Damico.

Would he ever knowingly do something illegal? Asbill asked.

"No chance," Damico said.

At day's end, the two old friends walked the governor out of the federal courthouse while a media throng surrounded them. Maureen McDonnell left separately, as she has every day of the trial. Asbill said his client will testify Thursday about their marriage, which the defense contends was in shambles, making any conspiracy impossible and allowing Williams to work his way into the first lady's life.

She, not the governor, had the most contact with Williams, the evidence shows. And the defense says she, not the governor, did the most to help Williams in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get grant funding and state research for his product.

And since Maureen McDonnell, unlike the governor, was never a public official, she can't be convicted of corruption without him, the defense contends.

Attorneys for both McDonnells have welcomed testimony about the former first lady's mental state, and Wednesday brought more of it. A management consultant with a Ph.D. in psychology testified that he advised the governor in early 2012 to consider therapy for his wife.

The governor declined, Virginia Commonwealth University consultant James Burke said, saying he'd try to spend more time with her instead. The governor said he "needed to take responsibility for a problem he caused," Burke said.

Bob McDonnell's demanding schedule contributed to the declining marriage, their attorneys have said, and Maureen McDonnell was particularly anxious when he was away, according to testimony from former mansion staffers.

Burke said he also suggested that the first lady move out of the governor's mansion and into the couple's private home. She was clearly stressed, Burke said, and anxious about the public speaking expected of first ladies. She exhibited some signs of depression, he said.

Burke and his team were brought in to build and help the first lady's staff about the time Maureen McDonnell's chief of staff, Mary Shea Sutherland, left in October 2011. There was "an undue amount of chaos that we were trying to bring some order to," he said.

After two months Burke nearly threw up his hands, telling a mansion staffer he would rather "put my priorities in more fruitful endeavors," according to emails put into evidence Wednesday by the McDonnell defense.

In another email, Burke told a staffer that McDonnell was "unwilling to confront the real problem."

"You poor dear," he told the staffer, who felt blamed for Maureen McDonnell's problems. "You have been through hell."

Burke also testified that, despite numerous conversations with Maureen McDonnell, he never caught wind of a romantic relationship with Williams, which the defense has implied. Prosecutors pointed to an email exchange between the two that lasted into the early morning hours in January 2012.

Burke said he was helping the first lady edit a speech at the time, and she was anxious.

"I really wouldn't be doing this for anyone else but that man of mine," she wrote him.

"Ah, love," he replied. "It is a wonderful thing."

Bob McDonnell's friends testified Wednesday that the two truly were in love, but Scully said he saw signs of tension. He said he prayed on it.

McDonnell spoke only briefly about his wife Wednesday. Most of his time on the stand was spent re-introducing himself to the jury.

He briefly recounted his childhood, with a focus on the values that he learned. He was one of five children, and said he got "the belt from my dad" and "the velvet glove from my mom." Two sisters sat in the courtroom Wednesday as he testified.

McDonnell talked about his time in the Army, saying it re-enforced his beliefs in patriotism and duty. He talked about attending law school at Regent University in Virginia Beach. The G.I. Bill covered tuition, but living expenses requiring multiple part-time jobs.

The McDonnells had two daughters by then, with a third born while he was in school.

"We worked very hard," McDonnell said. "We called that the years without sleep."

Twin boys came later, making a family of seven. McDonnell became a prosecutor, then a 14-year General Assembly delegate from Virginia Beach. He talked about the grueling campaign days running statewide for attorney general in 2005.

The governor's race, in 2009, was much the same. He said he drove 11 hours home one night -- from one tip of Virginia to the other -- to see his sons before they left for a Boy Scout camp.

He talked about raising more than $58 million in his career, for his own races and for the Republican Governors Association, which helped shine the spotlight of national political potential upon him until this investigation came to light.

He walked the jury through Virginia's loose campaign finance and political gift-giving rules, failing to mention that the rules changed this year in direct response to things he and his wife are accused of doing.

McDonnell said he raised about $24 million for his governor's race alone. He learned long ago, he said, "if you can't take somebody's money and be willing to vote against their interests the next day, you don't deserve to be in this business."

He recounted several specific times he told large donors, and friends, that he couldn't give them the appointments that they wanted. He ticked off some big names in state politics: Virginia Beach developer Bruce Thompson, Richmond businessman Bill Goodwin and Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, who testified earlier in this case as McDonnell's banker.

McDonnell talked about winning that 2009 gubernatorial election. The next morning, he was exhilarated, he said, but he could tell his wife was on edge.

"She was yelling at me about something," he said, as they readied for the day in a Richmond hotel room.

His cell phone rang, with a Washington, D.C., number on the caller I.D.

"Can you hold for the president of the United States," said a voice on the line.

And next: "Hello, Bob, this is Barack."

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

___

(c)2014 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

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