By Peter Galuszka
One literally could have heard a pin drop in U.S. District Court in Richmond today.
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.
This raises another tough question. What should “public service” be and how much should it take from one’s private life. More importantly, why can’t it support men and women who pursue it? Should it be only for the rich?
McDonnell slogged through relatively low-paying jobs like the General Assembly, Attorney General and Governor. He had five kids and a wife who seemed very freaked out by being First Lady – a role she apparently never wanted. She came from a Northern Virginia civil service family that didn’t exactly have a grand disposable income.
Consider two other Virginia governors –former and current. Mark Warner, now U.S. Senator, is rich from his telecommunications investments made years ago. At one point he was said to be worth a couple hundred million dollars. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, another former businessman, is likewise wealthy but probably not as rich as Warner.
Should these people be in office because they are rich? Should public service be available only to those with great portfolios? What would Thomas Jefferson say?