Mary-Shea Sutherland. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch
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.

The McDonnells had the misfortune to purchase a very expensive house (by Richmond standards) near the tail end of the real estate bubble. Prices collapsed shortly thereafter. If they had paid less than 20% down payment, their mortgage might well have been underwater, which may explain why Maureen didn’t want to sell. On the other hand, the cost of servicing the mortgage undoubtedly was considerably higher than the rent they could charge to any tenant. ($40,000 a year seems to be the maximum rent for houses of comparable size in the Wyndham area today.) If we throw in maintenance costs — we know that was an issue because Williams sent his brother out there to do landscaping work — we can conclude that the residence was bleeding $1,000 a month or more. The McDonnells’ Virginia Beach beach property was probably hemorrhaging even more.

Here’s the first question: Whom do you suppose was the driving force behind buying an $835,000 house, Bob or Maureen? Whom do you suppose was the driving force behind buying a beach house, the man who lived for politics or the wife who had an insatiable taste for luxury?

Here’s the second question: When she had two mortgages to pay and five kids to clothe and feed, what the H-E-double hockey sticks was Maureen doing maxing out her credit card? We no little about her life as wife of the attorney general, but it is crystal clear that she was unwilling to curb her lifestyle as a governor’s wife to live within the family’s means.

I am willing to bet large sums of money that Maureen was the one who insisted upon investing in the beach property and that she was the one who had to have an $835,000 McMansion in Richmond’s West End. I’m willing to bet that she made Bob’s life miserable until she got what she wanted. In other words, she was the architect of the family’s disastrous finances. Further, I’ll lay odds that her uncontrollable behavior has a psychiatric origin. She shows every sign of someone suffering from clinical depression. Again, I’m not seeking to excuse or justify her behavior, only to explain it. If Maureen hadn’t caused so much havoc in the lives of those around her, I’d feel sorry for her. She is a deeply troubled woman.

Update: Paul Goldman is much more sympathetic to Maureen McDonnell than I am. But his column is worth reading.

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42 responses to “Out of Control”

  1. Let me guess – Maureen was not responsible for her behavior because she had a medical “condition” and Bob was just beside himself about it and forced to take bribes to keep her from being sent to a “facility”.

    I think the defense should hire Jim Bacon!

  2. “This woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit of the tree and I ate it.”

    1. “My wife is such a nutcase, bless her soul, – even though she is the mother of our 5 kids, that I had no choice – I was literally forced to accept bribes even though I knew better…. and so now even though I just hate it like heck – under the bus she goes….even though I know it will give Maureen the mother of all bad hair days”


      what’s that word – cad?

  3. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    I have to say I’ve seen more sympathy for Bob McDonnell on this blog than I’ve ever seen for poor children from poor families who go to poor schools and perform poorly and it’s nauseating.

    When we’re talking about the latter it’s all a cultural thing or just bad genes. If those 6th graders could just pull themselves up by their bootstraps or had the foresight to pick better parents everything would work itself out! Until then, let them eat online classrooms! When it’s the latter, it’s poor, gentle Bob being beaten down and manipulated by his shrew wife. Talk about comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

    Unless Maureen nailed Bob’s hand to a cross and slipped that Rolex on herself he’s responsible for his actions and gets no sympathy. He took the watch. He rode in the plane. He went golfing. And it looks like he took the loan. He’s a grown, comfortable and politically powerful man – if his marriage was a mess he had options, from therapy to divorce.

    Of course, DJ has posted ad nauseam about the other former governors who took gifts – maybe there’s just something about white culture in Virginia that makes them susceptible to such actions.

    1. ” … maybe there’s just something about white culture in Virginia that makes them susceptible to such actions.”

      You don’t often read blatant racism on this blog but we have an example here. One wonders how our liberal blog readers would feel if a conservative commenter made a derogatory reference to “black culture in Virginia”.

      For your edification …

      the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

      I’d ask Jim Bacon to delete you comment as an obvious example of racism but a shipwreck is a lighthouse to the sea and liberal racism should be kept on display.

      1. I don’t think there is any “liberal” or “conservative” side to this myself but now that it’ brought up – we do hear ad nauseum here about the “entitlement culture” of the poor while Jim then sympathetically “explores” the human side of the rich and avarice.

        Methinks Bacon is projecting here.

        As far as Kaine and Warner are concerned -yes they are politicians also – and did get gifts and – this is important – promptly disclosed them and did NOT feel the “need” to stay in contact with their benefactors in ways that gave their advisers the heebie jeebies.

        there is a line – most politicians with half a brain know what it is and/or they have staff that tell them. Kaine and Warner had staff that advised them where that line was – so did McDonnell but he ignored it apparently.

        As Bacon continues to make – really pathetic excuses – he totally ignores that McDonnell was an AG..worked for a Congressman (Lewis) that went to prison over bribes and had a prominent person in Va (Hamilton) go to prison over extortion and bribery. Was McDonnell blind to this?

        How do you do what McDonnell did – knowing all of this and how do you apologize for his behavior by ignoring all of this and then blather about “liberals”?

        1. Larry, I’m not making any excuses for McDonnell at all. If he’s guilty, he’s guilty and deserves to be punished regardless of what made him do it. I do get the sense, however, that you have already proclaimed him guilty only halfway through the prosecution. Let’s just go ahead and lynch the guy right now!

          1. Actually you’re wrong Jim. He MAY NOT have actually broken any laws.

            But I’m aghast at his behavior from an ethics point of view as well as a decent person point of view.

            these people – him and his wife are ” Leona Helmsley” type folks – who occupied the highest office in Virginia.

            “Conservative-value” folks who make 175K a year .. made really bad investments instead of conservative investments, maxed out their credit cards and go running to a influence-buying huckster for financial help while conducting the affairs of the State.

            and the coup-de-grace – the man KNEW the things were really bad and he had the audacity to think he had a bright political future.

            what kind of dufus does these things – even if they are found not guilty of outright bribery?

            these are not good people Jim … there is no “human drama” unless you want to think of Leona Helmsley or Bernie Madoff as victims of cirumstance.

            I think it’s comical that you think the criticism is “liberal”.

        2. Oh, McDonnell was the worst of the bunch, hard to doubt that. The two questions for McDonnell are:

          1. Why would a normally smart man do something so stupid?
          2. Did he break the law or just behave like a jackass?

          The question for Virginians is:

          1. Why do we tolerate a corrupt political class which takes money in return for access and favors? I think Jonnie Williams was telling the absolute truth when he said that the McDonnells were never friends of his that his dealings were “just business”. Trust me – Cuccinelli’s, Kaine’s and Warner’s benefactors weren’t friends of those guys either. It was just business.


          1. Why should people from one part of Virginia where corruption is intolerable be forced to live under a corrupt state government because Bill Howell likes his gifts and systematically resists any and all efforts at reform? Time to water down Dillon’s Rule, big time. I just can’t deal with the “real Virginia” values (of graft and corruption) anymore.

          1. well..until I see something more definitive, I do not think most Va Gov and leaders of the legislature are any more “corrupt” than most other states and I can name some states that are far, far worse.

            My problem with McDonnell – is:

            1- He’s billed himself as a moralistic “values” conservative that opposed abortion and MedicAid for the working poor.
            2. – He interned for a Congressman that went to jail for bribery
            3. -He himself was an AG
            4. – he watched Phil Hamilton go to prison in 2011 for extortion and bribery.
            5. – he was explicitly warned by his advisers…
            6. – he’s standing by – without comment – while his wife is pilloried –

            this is not some clueless henpecked yahoo from Podunk , Va.

            This is a shrewd and sophisticated politico who got a gas tax passed, pushed through a 460 PPP… intervened in the MWAA and more…

            In my mind – whether he is technically guilty or not is irrelevant.

            I’d actually hate to see him or his wife go to prison – even one day.

            but just looking at the dynamics between him and Williams and his wife – and even his kids – is revolting and disgusting for someone who is sitting in the Governors office.

            This is not about Kaine or Warner or the Va GA – this is about some folks who just simply lack basic scruples – who do not deserve to reside in the Gov Mansion.

            and yet – he thinks he has a chance to be the VP nominee for Romney or some future political role…

      2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        Wow, way to understand neither context nor tongue-in-cheek commentary. Very, very well done.

    2. I don’t know about “poor, gentle Bob being beaten down and manipulated by his shrew wife.” A better formulation might be “wimpy Bob caving in to his harpy wife.”

      By the way, I would remind everyone that the negative picture of Maureen comes not from Bob McDonnell or his attorneys but from witnesses called by theprosecution — and from Maureen’s own attorneys!

      1. How come it stinks twice as bad with these kinds of scandals when the perpetrators are “family value” types?

      2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        And here you go surprising me with a sense of humor. Well done!

  4. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Not a bad hypothesis.

    But what about…Bob? (SML reference for the VA blog)

    The man was sharp and he was AG b/f all of this. He knew Virginia’s COIA inside and out. You’ll never convince me otherwise.

    I have a feeling that he was more than happy to “push it to the line.” He just didn’t want to tiptoe over the line. He didn’t tiptoe over the COIA line, but maybe he tripped over the Fed line……? Perhaps too clever by half?

    1. I dunno. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was perpetually “off the hook” angry and could fly into a tantrum at any moment? You either placate the person or you leave. Jim Bacon saying McDonnell couldn’t “control” his wife is both sexist and naive. If Maureen was really as much of a raging loon as is portrayed in the testimony then there wasn’t going to be any “controlling” her. For the record, I’d say the same thing if Maureen was the governor and Bob was the governor’s spouse who spent half his life going bezerk.

      1. the whole “Maureen” narrative is bogus to the bone – fodder for fools…

        it basically shows the depths of cynicism with respect to how gullible the public is.

        It’s the FAUX News version of a “defense”.

  5. Let’s see…. How many ways can I say it?

    “That is not to condone Bob’s behavior in going along — it is simply to explain it.”

    “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.”

    I’m not trying to exonerate McDonnell. I’m trying to fathom the human side of this drama.

    I find it interesting that liberals who read my posts see them as an effort to exonerate the McDonnells by humanizing them. What liberals don’t understand is that I, as a conservative, don’t buy the “I’m depraved because I’m deprived” defense or any of its permutations. If you broke the law, you broke the law. No excuses allowed. That applies to Bob McDonnell no matter how hen-pecked he may have been.

    I haven’t been willing to declare anyone guilty yet because (a) the trial is not over and (b) so far the evidence presented doesn’t support a clear-cut conclusion. Maybe we’ll be able to institute kangaroo courts in this country one day and liberals will be able to mete out summary justice according to their prejudices. But we’re not there yet.

    1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      Funny how this is where you look at the human drama. Kids from Gilpin Court doing poorly in school because of poor nutrition, decrepit sleeping arrangements and the environmental stress from violence in their lives just get, “it’s something about their culture!” Rich (as governor he was making $175k a year, well into the 1 percent there) adult in the governor’s mansion finds himself unable to resist the perks of the position and we need to take a magnifying glass to his relationship with his harpy wife to figure out where it all went wrong.

      I mean, I get it. You’ve admitted to falling in and out of the top income quintile during your life, which I imagine was really stressful, so you can probably see a lot of yourself in Bob: wealthy, but not ostentatiously so, succumbing to the temptations that his station in life affords him.

  6. Liberals … often wrong but never in doubt.

    “well..until I see something more definitive, I do not think most Va Gov and leaders of the legislature are any more “corrupt” than most other states and I can name some states that are far, far worse.”

    I suppose you could name Tennessee and be right. The Daily Beast used various statistics from 1999 – 2008 and rates Virginia the second most corrupt state in America, behind only Tennessee. This was reported in that Koch Brothers funded rag The Washington Post. Per the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia was one of only seven states to be rated a flat “F”. As far as I know the CPI does not distinguish among the miscreant states which are rated “F” to determine the “most worst” and “least worst”.

    1. tell me the highest grade for any state.

      this ranks corruption “risk” rather than say – how many officials have been charged and/or convicted …

      basically the report is about what the rules are for ethics… and I agree Va sucks – but we do not have a steady stream of elected officials headed for prison.

      Can you, for instance, tell me who the previous 5 were before Phil Hamilton that went to jail for corruption in Va?

      1. There are two other ratings in the article. The Daily Beast rates Virginia #2 for actual corruption and the New York Times rates Virginia #11 by the number of convicted officials. These two ratings are for actual corruption, not potential corruption.

    2. the other thing here – people in Virginia – apparently do not care that we have among the most lax ethics rules in the nation.

      I see no outrage, no one thrown out of office for refusing to enact tighter laws, etc.

      None of that. Virginia’s are either satisfied or don’t give a rip.

      That’s what makes the McDonnell thing so bad. Our rules are abysmal and the awful truth is – that McDonnell may not have broken any state laws but the Feds think he may for violated a FEDERAL law.

      truthfully – think about this. If a Gov in Virginia is corrupt – which AG will prosecute him ? his own? or the next guy elected? You want McAuliffe to charge McDonnell with corruption and not be accused of partisan politics?

      1. Agree on the disinterest of the citizenry although that disinterest is more pronounced in some circles than others. Republicans in Virginia, for example, seem particularly fine with the corrupt status quo. Once again, we seem to have a small town / rural vs urban / suburban debate going on. People like Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) propose tough new ethics laws that get voted down while Bill Howell (R-Hooterville) defend the status quo, propose useless milquetoast laws and sneer at the idea of an ethics commission.

        As for who would charge the governor – presumably the ethics commission if we had one.

        Republican legislators in Virginia, making $18,000 per year plus everything they can steal.

    3. by the way – this is the report of the Center for Public Integrity:

      and this is number 1 – New Jersey:

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I have to say after actually COVERING the trial (you are not) that you are going along with the “Throw Maureen Under the Bus ” theory, orchestrated by BOTH of their high priced lawyers. This backs McDonnell whom you supported for years except for his roads thing. Your entire premise is that men like McDonnell are just fine, it is their WIVES (nasty women) who are the problem. Ro-Bo or Jo-Bon or whatever real estate firm he failed to disclose on his loan application( felony even for you Republicans) doesn’t matter if we can blame it on the WIFE. The WIFE exonerates all. HE had nothing to do with it. (Did they have separate bedrooms for those 4 a.m. phone calls)>?)
    Ouch! And shame on you!

    1. that was BRUTAL Peter.



    2. Sounds to me like she belongs under the bus. Maybe he does too. And Bacon never exonerated anybody. Like me, he wonders how McDonnell could have done something so stupid.

      He had his staff say no to the Oscar de Larenta dress.
      Told his son to send back the golf clubs.
      Didn’t know about the gift for the wedding food and was furious when he found out.

      Yes, he did plenty of stupid, unethical things himself. However, of the whole cast he’s the only one who apparently ever said “no” to anything.

      1. re: ” Yes, he did plenty of stupid, unethical things himself. However, of the whole cast he’s the only one who apparently ever said “no” to anything.”

        but Bacon said he was so hen-pecked he could not say no.. right?

        I think Bacon is all over the map in his “defense”.

        Here’s a question for those who think Kaine and Warner were just as guilty but “smarter”.

        can we for Kaine and Warner list out their worst sins?

        1. For anyone reading this comment thread: I am not “defending” McDonnell. I’m trying to understand what happened. For the hundredth time, being hen pecked/pussy whipped is not a defense. It’s a more accurate and nuanced interpretation of the McDonnell family dysfunction that led to the atrocious (but not yet proven to be illegal) behavior described in the trial. If the prosecution adopted this “narrative” (as Peter calls it), it actually would put forward a more believable case.

          Either Larry is punching my buttons or he’s so blinded by partisan zealotry that he isn’t paying attention to what I’m saying — I’m not sure which.

          1. nothing partisan… I have contempt for anyone engaging in this kind of behavior – whether its “officially” “illegal” or not but perhaps some button pushing because I don’t really think it matters whether they are found “guilty” or not – it’s their behavior while in office and now in the trial that convinces me that these folks are seriously flawed as humans who basically used the office of Gov to satisfy their greed.

            I would have the same view of ANY public official who acted this way – no matter their political persuasion.

            but you ARE, in fact, defending … by implying that there must be some mitigating reason … for their – actions – when you note they’ve not been found guilty of – even as you do know their behavior whether it is technically in violation of the law – or not is disgusting.

            you know this. Their behavior is a scummy as it gets – even if they never got charged.

    3. You may have covered the trial but you offer absolutely no evidence in support of your position. You simply object to my “narrative” (meticulously detailed) and propose your own (with nothing to support it.) Remember, the “narrative” I propose arises from testimony presented by the prosecution’s witnesses! We haven’t even heard from defense witnesses!

    4. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      Yeah, man, if Jim actually went down to the courthouse and covered the trial he could offer deep, trenchant insights like Jonnie Williams has thinning hair and a bulbous forehead.

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    When i have time I just might go through four years of blogging where Bacon flacked for McD. It will be time consuming but promises to be a long list. I really do love the male dominant (Republican?) thing that wives can’t be controlled and I’M HOLDING OFF JUDGMENT ( who the f&^k cares?) until the jury is in. Since we are back in prehistoric times, can anyone remember when another VIRGINIA FIRST LADY behaved in this way? Maybe we need a female Gov and see how she behaves and her spouse?

    No question this is vulgar beyond belief, but I do remember when everyone, including JAB, thought McD was the greatest thing since sliced bread except for the roads deal which got in the way of his Rissean dogma.

    But damn, the sexism is just so pervasive here. Why didn’t McD just tell Maureen and the kids to cool it, you are not the Gov? And then when he is too balless to do so, why do we blame the femme? It’s all her fault? But hey, we in Virginia are so believing in this cavalier bullshit that we expect their women to go along too without written-down rules. . Fact is, Maureen was NOT an elected official. Technically, she could have accepted billions from Jonnie, sex or no sex.

    And if she pops for the small six figures, hey, cherchez la femme, you sexist pigs!!!

    1. Talk about imposing narratives!

  9. I think Bacon knows McDonnell is going to take the rap for the loan and failure to disclose. Like any smart lawyer with a guilty client Bacon is using the trial as a place to start positioning for mercy in the sentencing hearing. Wouldn’t it be delicious revenge for Jim if McDonnell were someday seen in an orange jumpsuit picking up trash along the Charlottesville Bypass?

    1. As far as the actual trial strategy, I think it’s pretty clear – Maureen isn’t going to jail. As Peter says, she wasn’t the governor. So, she’s willing to be thrown under the bus to protect Bob. She takes some PR flak but stays on the right side of the bars. Maybe she still loves Bob. Or maybe she knows that the alimony payments one gets from an 18 cent per hour prison job won’t support her lifestyle. She might also have come to realize that Sugar Daddy “crushes” are hard to find once hubby is no longer governor.

  10. billsblots Avatar

    Can any of you people read, and DO you, before writing some of the things you do, or more likely, are these just pre-canned diatribes of accumulated, life-long bitterness fertilized by the perceived unfairness of life?
    You’ve already determined in that space between your ears what the author must have written without actually reading it in toto.

    1. Bill – can you be more specific?

      do you think the McDonnells are being unfairly treated here?

      1. I think Bill finds it unfair that many criticize Jim Bacon for supposedly exonerating Bob McDonnell when Bacon repeatedly tries to make clear that he does not excuse the bad behavior.

        1. ” Bacon repeatedly tries to make clear that he does not excuse the bad behavior.”

          he says that – yes – but why is he trying to “understand” it? He doesn’t normally do that – say when he wants to know who screwed up MWAA or the 460 mess… why does it matter what happens at the trial once you know what his behavior was while in office? That’s what has come out that affects my view.

          I don’t recall Bacon trying to “understand” Phil Hamilton, etc..and others guilty of less than wonderful behaviors…

          it’s just curious.

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