Trial by desire: The McDonnells’ fairytale romance takes a nasty turn

Bob McDonnell. File photo. Bob McDonnell. File photo.

For a political columnist, the federal corruption trial of Bob and Maureen McDonnell is like a giant bowl of M&M’s dusted with cocaine sitting by your keyboard at all times: it’s such a constant temptation that it’s hard to resist gorging yourself every time you sit down to write. But with prosecutors finally resting their case, and the McDonnells’ defense team now attempting to refute a whole host of embarrassing allegations, we hope you’ll indulge us as we return, once again, to the ongoing soap opera of Virginia’s formerly high-flying, now fallen and dysfunctional first couple.

While in office, the former governor and his ex-NFL cheerleader wife projected a carefully constructed image of marital bliss. But the trial’s first two weeks not only ripped the veneer off of that image, but then proceeded to smash the underlying wood into splinters and set them aflame. (To be honest, it was fairly easy to see this coming, as one of the very first actions taken by the McDonnells’ lawyers was to introduce a motion to have Bob and Maureen tried separately. It was denied).

The prosecution’s allegations that Bob and Maureen traded official favors for cash and gifts seemed strong going in, and even stronger at the conclusion of their presentation. To bolster their case that the McDonnells abused the powers of the governor’s office for personal gain, prosecutors turned to Jonnie Williams, the millionaire tobacco-pill huckster who sought to promote his highly questionable “dietary supplement” Anatabloc by befriending the McDonnells (mostly Maureen) and showering them with no-contract loans, high-priced dresses and jewelry, and assorted other favors.

Williams turned out to be a surprisingly solid witness, and stuck to his story throughout countless hours of cross-examination. He repeatedly described instances of the McDonnells helping to promote Anatabloc, including personal introductions to high-level government officials and a lunch at the governor’s mansion which featured a bottle of Anatabloc placed prominently next to every plate. Other witnesses, such as former McDonnell policy aide Jason Eige, testified about requests from both Maureen and Bob McDonnell regarding government-funded studies of the product.

The prosecution capped its case with a final, devastating presentation of all the luxury goods and clothing that Williams had purchased for the first couple, each one held aloft as it was described meticulously for the jury.

In response, the McDonnells’ defense team decided on a very simple strategy: throw Maureen under a bus. At various points during the trial they alleged (or elicited testimony alleging) that the McDonnells’ marriage was so bad that they were barely on speaking terms, that Maureen had a “crush” on Williams, and that the governor was “in denial about Mrs. McDonnell’s mental capacity.” It got so bad that one of Maureen’s own attorneys got her former chief of staff to admit, under oath, that she’d called the former first lady a “nutbag” in her FBI testimony.

This sets the stage for the even more exciting defense presentation, which will try to convince jurors that Williams is an opportunistic liar, that Bob McDonnell did nothing illegal (technically true, given Virginia’s incredibly lax ethics laws at the time), and that the entire imbroglio was apparently a product of Maureen McDonnell’s misguided romantic fantasies.

For our part, we will try to resist chronicling every sordid twist and turn in this ongoing train wreck of a trial—but man oh man, do those drug-dusted M&M’s look good!