Mary-Shea Sutherland. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch
by James A. Bacon
With each new day of testimony, the trial of Maureen and Bob McDonnell is becoming more a trial of Maureen and less a trial of Bob. There was abundant evidence in previous testimony that the former first lady was out of control, sending members of the former governor’s staff scrambling to rein in inappropriate behavior. But yesterday’s testimony revealed that life was even worse inside the governor’s mansion, where there was no buffer between Maureen and those who worked under her. It is increasingly clear that the first lady was the motive source of the outrageous behavior that prompted the charges against her husband and her.
As Mary-Shea Sutherland, former chief of staff to the first lady, described her in testimony yesterday, Maureen was the boss from hell. Sutherland depicted Maureen as “a screamer” and a “nutbag” who frequently tongue-lashed the staff. The incidents were so frequent and so bad that Sutherland conferred with Bob’s chief of staff, Martin Kent, about incidents involving Maureen, including “a lot of yelling and screaming” about reimbursements the first family would have to make to the state.
“It was almost two years of emotional stress,” Sutherland testified. “I couldn’t protect the staff. It was a state of constant stress; going to work in the morning with your stomach in a knot.”
Finally, Sutherland couldn’t take it anymore and started looking for another job. She approached Jonnie Williams Sr., president of Star Scientific, who has testified that he lavished gifts upon the McDonnells in the hope of gaining their assistance in promoting his Anatabloc vitamin supplement. Williams promised her a job, backed down and then told Maureen about it. That disclosure, reports the Times-Dispatch, sent the first lady on a tear through Sutherland’s office. Maureen demanded Sutherland’s computer password and rifled through her desk.
Sutherland’s testimony is of more than voyeuristic interest. It further illuminates the dysfunction within the governor’s household during a period in which Maureen and Bob McDonnell accepted gifts and loans from Williams exceeding $150,000 in value and acted in various capacities to promote his product and solicit state research funds for his company. So far, the evidence suggests that Maureen initiated all, or nearly all, of the incidents under investigation.
That is not to condone Bob’s behavior in going along — it is simply to explain it. I have conjectured that Bob engaged in conflict-avoidance behavior, torn between doing what he knew to be ethical and a desire to escape his wife’s harangues. I believe that Bob labored long, workaholic hours on state business, in part to avoid a conflict-ridden home life, and left his wife to rule the roost. Previous testimony, by son Bobby McDonnell, describes how McDonnell had objected to Bobby accepting a gift of new golf clubs from Williams but how Bobby and Maureen overrode him.
By facilitating meetings between Williams and state officials, a routine favor dispensed by governors, and by appearing at promotional events, Bob sought to do enough to assuage Maureen but not too much, he hoped, to cross into illegality. He may have crossed the line, however, when accepting loans from Williams to bail out his bad real estate investments and, allegedly, conspiring to hide the transaction. (We’ll have to hear his testimony before drawing firm conclusions.)
Sutherland’s testimony provides other clues about the McDonnell-family dysfunction. Maureen’s out-of-control behavior may well have been the cause of the family’s terrible finances in the first place. As she told Sutherland while shopping for her inaugural wear in New York, her credit cards were “maxed out.” In other words, Maureen had been trying to live a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget long before she reached the governor’s mansion and met Jonnie Williams.
Maureen told Sutherland that her family was “buried in debt” due to expenses and sagging real estate investments. Notably, though, she did not want to sell the family’s $835,000 home in Wyndham, in the affluent West End of Henrico County. That remark was highly revealing.
Let’s do a little math. Let’s assume the McDonnells paid a 20% down payment when they purchased the house in late 2005/early 2006 when Bob took the job of attorney general. That would have left them with a mortgage of about $670,000. Let’s assume they paid a 7% interest rate, which was prevalent at that time. That would imply annual payments of principal, interest, taxes and insurance of more than $50,000 a year, or a third of the AG’s salary and more than is financially prudent. It’s possible that they refinanced at lower rates in later years, bringing down the payments somewhat but the overall burden would not have changed significantly. If they paid a smaller down payment, the burden would have been commensurately higher. Continue reading