Maureen McDonnell, as the first lady of Virginia, was an abusive and insecure person whose staff worried about her erratic behavior, a jury was told by a former aide to her husband, ex-Governor Robert McDonnell.
“There was some concern she was suffering from a mental illness,” said Janet Kelly, McDonnell’s former secretary of the commonwealth, who oversaw public appointments and helped with top government operations from 2010 to 2014.
Kelly was among the first witnesses as the McDonnells’ lawyers began their defense yesterday after three weeks of prosecution testimony in the couple’s public-corruption trial.
The McDonnells are accused of striking a bargain with businessman Jonnie Williams to use state resources to promote Anatabloc, a dietary supplement he was marketing, in exchange for more than $150,000 in gifts and loans.
Maureen McDonnell developed a close relationship with Williams, which defense lawyers have described as a “crush.”
They have tried to show that it was Maureen, who wasn’t a public official, who solicited most of the gifts and favors from Williams, the then-CEO of Star Scientific Co. They’ve also attempted to show that her relationship with Williams led to conduct that her husband had only vague knowledge of, and that prosecutors say was illegal.
Kelly bolstered that contention testifying that Williams and Maureen McDonnell were “kinda flirty and were very, very, very friendly” on a trip in the businessman’s private plane.
Robert McDonnell’s lawyer, Henry Asbill, sought to distance his client from Williams by painting Maureen McDonnell as a woman with a difficult personality in a troubled marriage and the former governor as a straight arrow.
James Chang, McDonnell’s secretary of commerce, and Laura Fornash, his secretary of education, testified yesterday that he never asked them to do anything for Star Scientific or Williams.
According to Kelly, who had worked in political jobs for McDonnell off and on since 1999, the governor was a hard-working, trusting and guileless public servant who “never yelled.”
She described McDonnell as a “Boy Scout” and “one of the most honest people I know.”
In contrast, Maureen McDonnell screamed and upbraided employees so much that several members of the executive mansion staff wrote her a letter asking her to stop, Kelly testified.
“I think she was pathologically incapable” of accepting responsibility, Kelly said.
Even before the letter was sent, Robert McDonnell had hired behavior-management specialists from a university to coach his wife on how to handle her job.
“Was it successful?” Asbill asked. “Not exactly,” Kelly replied.
Earlier testimony showed that while Maureen McDonnell met more often with Williams than her husband, the governor met alone with the businessman to arrange a loan for a troubled investment in resort real estate.
Brenda Chamberlain, who handled the bookkeeping for the properties, testified yesterday that at different times two loans, for $50,000 and $20,000, respectively, came on the books.
At first they were listed in vague terms, she said. After McDonnell was interviewed by the Virginia State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in February 2013, they were the listed as coming from Starwood Trust, she testified. The trust was a Williams’ entity but Chamberlain said she didn’t know that.
Robert McDonnell, 60, a former rising star in the Republican party once seen as a presidential contender for 2016, faces with his wife, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader, a 14-count indictment that includes charges of conspiracy, honest-services fraud and making false statements.
The case is U.S. v. McDonnell, 14-cr-00012, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Richmond).