Ex-Va. first lady sought credit for loan, sister-in-law says
RICHMOND — Former Gov. Bob McDonnell's wife sent text messages claiming exclusive credit for securing loans from a Virginia businessman whose largesse toward the couple is at the heart of their public corruption trial, according to evidence presented on Tuesday.
In one text presented by the former governor's defense team, Maureen McDonnell expresses anger that her husband appears to be getting credit for arranging the deal. The McDonnells sought the arrangement for their side business of renting vacation homes in Virginia Beach.
The McDonnells are charged in federal court with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his company's tobacco-based dietary supplement.
Bob McDonnell's lawyers began presenting their defense this week and have attempted to show that his wife was the one enjoying a cozy relationship with Williams.
Testimony on Tuesday included Bob McDonnell's sister, also named Maureen.
Maureen C. McDonnell testified that she received a series of urgent, vaguely written texts from her sister-in-law in March 2012 with instructions about how to handle a loan check that had been mailed.
Bob McDonnell and his sister had formed a real estate venture in 2005, buying two vacation homes in Virginia Beach. The venture lost thousands of dollars when the real-estate market tanked, and the McDonnells were looking for investors to keep the business going.
The then-first lady sent a text to Maureen C. McDonnell saying: “I talked him into it” — meaning that Williams agreed to provide a $50,000 loan.
Williams eventually lent $70,000 to the venture.
Maureen C. McDonnell also testified that she and her husband were separated, but because her brother's relationship with his wife had deteriorated so badly, he never bothered to tell the first lady.
The testimony is intended to bolster the defense's claim that the former first couple's marriage was on the rocks and that they could not have conspired to accept gifts and loans from Williams because they were barely speaking.
Maureen C. McDonnell testified that she saw a lot of strain in her brother's marriage to a woman whom she described as “very manipulative, very unpredictable and very deceptive.” She said the result was a breakdown in communication.
“After he became governor, it kind of went from bad to worse,” she said.
Another defense witness who testified after the former governor's sister described the first lady as difficult and prone to angry outbursts.
Kathleen Scott was a special assistant to Maureen McDonnell. She testified that her ex-boss became increasingly volatile as she prepared for public appearances. Other witnesses described similar behavior.
Scott said a consultant who was hired to help deal with the first lady's tantrums told staffers to “just think of her as a 5-year-old.”
Scott also testified that Maureen McDonnell seemed infatuated with Williams and would “light up” when his name was mentioned. The former first lady's attorney has said Maureen McDonnell — feeling neglected by her politically ambitious husband — developed a “crush” on Williams.
Maureen C. McDonnell said her sister-in-law was unhappy as first lady, who called the governor's mansion a prison.
“I think she felt trapped there,” she said.
The ex-governor's sister said the properties weren't intended to be a profit-making venture but, instead, to provide happy memories of family vacations to Myrtle Beach as children.
and wanted to replicate that for their own children and their extended family.
She also offered testimony designed to counter the government's theory that the McDonnells were financially desperate because of the real-estate venture.
Maureen C. McDonnell testified that she had long earned a six-figure salary, topping out at about $560,000 in 2012, and could easily have paid the real-estate venture's bills. But she said it made good business sense to rely on low-interest loans from individuals — her father, Williams and a Virginia Beach radiologist — rather than disrupt her investments.
Forensic accountant J. Allen Kosowsky, an expert defense witness who examined financial records, said the former governor, his wife and his sister were all financially sound. Largely because of Maureen C. McDonnell's income, the three combined had $1.4 million in liquid assets, Kosowsky testified.
Prosecutors previously had made note of the former first couple's credit card debt, which peaked at more than $90,000 during his term, but Kosowsky said that is only half the story. He said their combined credit limit was nearly $205,000, and they paid the cards down to $5,759 by August 2011.
The family real estate enterprise made plenty of rent to cover interest charges, but other expenses put the properties in the red until 2012, he said.
The ex-governor's sister said the properties were not intended to be a profit-making venture. She said she and her brother had happy memories of family vacations to Myrtle Beach as children and wanted to replicate that for their own children and their extended family.