Bill Hazel, secretary of health an human resources. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot.
Bill Hazel, secretary of health an human resources. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot.

Testimony continued yesterday in the Maureen and Bob McDonnell corruption trial as the prosecution brought more witnesses to the stand. There were no major revelations but trial junkies were treated to a number of small but telling details.

Snake oil. We’ve known from the beginning that Bill Hazel, former governor McDonnell’s secretary of health and human resources, was skeptical of Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, Sr.’s claims regarding the company’s Anatabloc supplements. We just didn’t know how skeptical. It turns out that Hazel regarded Williams as one step removed from a snake oil salesman. He found Williams’ claims “unbelievable,” adding, “I won’t even put the stuff in my mouth.” What’s not clear is how forcefully he conveyed that skepticism to the McDonnells.

A couple in love. The McDonnells struck Sarah Scarbrough, then-director of the Executive Mansion, as a “happy, in-love couple.” The governor made time for his family and “worshiped the ground” that Maureen walked on, frequently kissing her on the cheek. Scarbrough’s testimony buttressed that of Mary-Shea Sutherland, the first lady’s chief of staff, that the McDonnells had regular family dinners together and made romantic gestures to one another. Sutherland had described previously how Maureen had sought to purchase a yellow dress because the governor had “fallen in love with her in yellow,” and how Bob had composed her a “lovely” poem. Then, of course, there was the infamous $6,000 Rolex watch that Maureen gave Bob for Christmas.

These recollections seemingly conflict with the defense’s claim that the couple’s relationship was so rocky that they barely spoke to one another, making it implausible that they would conspire on how to trade favors for gifts with Williams. However, Scarbrough did say she did not believe that the couple communicated well with each other.

Scarbrough also confirmed Sutherland’s testimony that Maureen was often sad and upset and that her management style was “her way or no way.” The first lady also could be sneaky. On more than one occasion she would invoke her husband’s name to get things done, such as the time she ordered Anatabloc placed in gift bags handed out at a function when, in fact, the governor had asked for no such thing.

Maureen’s friend. One of the few concrete actions Bob McDonnell took on behalf of Jonnie Williams was setting up an interview with health secretary Hazel. As Hazel recounted the event, the governor told him that Williams was a “very good friend” of his wife’s and “he wanted me to meet with him.” That quote supports my narrative that Maureen was the driving force behind granting favors to, and soliciting gifts from, Williams (again, with the possible exception of the real estate loans), and that (most of the time) McDonnell went along to avoid conflict with his wife. By asking Hazel to meet with a good friend of his wife, as opposed to a good friend of his, he was distancing himself from the request.

More meddling. Hazel’s testimony highlighted another favor Maureen did for Williams: meddling in a “Healthcare Leaders” luncheon at the governor’s mansion organized in February 2012. Maureen insisted upon adding multiple guests affiliated with Star Scientific to the guest list. Hazel refused to use his department’s budget to pay for the added guests. ““I was not excited to see these outsiders, who were not considered leaders, involved,” Hazel said.

I’m still sticking with my narrative that the McDonnell marriage was a mess. Even bad marriages have ups as well as downs, depending upon the mood swings of the more erratic partner. I find it entirely plausible that Bob would try to sooth an unhappy spouse, who felt lonely and neglected, through occasional displays of affection. I also find it plausible that the first couple would try to put on a brave front for the benefit of outsiders. Still, there’s no denying that the testimony is ambiguous. Any objective person would have to remain open-minded on the issue.

A reminder to my blog critics: An interpretation of the testimony that says Maureen was the motive force behind the exchange of gifts and favors with Williams while Bob went along reluctantly to avoid conflict (with my usual caveat regarding McDonnell’s submission of incomplete information on loan documents)  does not justify any illegal or unethical actions either one of them might have taken. People do things they shouldn’t do for all sorts of reasons — greed, lust, revenge, whatever. A reluctant lawbreaker is a lawbreaker nonetheless. By exploring the personal dynamics in the McDonnell family, I am not “defending” anyone. I am not trying to exonerate anyone. I’m simply trying to understand what went so wrong and reach a conclusion, as the jury will have to do, of whether the McDonnells are guilty or innocent of the charges with which they are being tried.

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6 responses to “The Beat Goes On…”

  1. billsblots Avatar

    “Any objective person would have to remain open-minded on the issue.”
    Good luck with that on this blog!

  2. I just never saw such concern before – like with Phil Hamilton or the guy on the MWAA or the UVA BOV, or other “humans”…. ” caught up” … in things that went sideways..????

    I mean just recently you were on a witch-hunt to find out “WHO” was “responsible” for the US 460 mess… right?

    It’s always been “string em up on the nearest tree” until…this couple and now you’re such an understanding person about their flaws that ..I’m …taken aback… and poor Bill Blots also is just beside himself!

    I do not need a judge or a jury to decide what I think of the behaviors of Bob and Maureen and I don’t need some kind of test to determine the existing facts of what they did.

    The whole tribe Dad, Mom and the kids were overtly seeking money and favors from Williams – that’s clear – and now they’re pointing fingers at others or making excuses for their behavior.

    that’s totally apart from the legal or even the ethical aspects… for me.

    I’ve known people like this all my life – and they are not folks I admire – I just find this kind of behavior, whether it’s illegal or not to be reprehensible in terms of basic human decency.

    yes, the real world has these folks in numbers, but no I do not have to “understand” why they are that way… any more than I have to “understand” why people steal from others.

  3. I predict that McDonnell will be found guilty of only failing to disclose the loan. The gifts will be found to be in poor taste but not illegal.

    The bigger political question is whether the revelations from the trial will sufficiently embarrass Virginia’s political class into passing serious ethics laws. I doubt it but who knows? I also wonder if future governors will feel pressured to follow McAuliffe’s practice of refusing any and all substantial gifts (I believe he allows himself to take gifts under $25 in value). That would certainly be a step in the right direction.

    1. Precisely. An acquittal could have the ironic effect of demonstrating the inadequacy of Virginia’s ethics laws. If McDonnell gets off free, that doesn’t exonerate him in the realm of public opinion from accepting the loans and gifts. To the contrary, it makes a forceful statement that the laws need updating.

      1. then what’s the purpose of trying to “understand” the McDonnels’s reprehensible behavior?

        we have really lax laws that are super easy to stay on the right side of – but the McDonnells could not do – what most politicians in Va do – not be so greedy that they have to go over the that distant line.

        we’re acting like – it’s not McDonnells fault because the laws were so lax – and that had they been tighter and more explicit that the McDonnells might not had done what they did.

        I keep telling you that they were so totally complicit in pushing the envelope and they would do that no matter how tight or lax the laws were OR they were too clueless to be Gov and first lady to start with.

        were they clueless or were they complicit and again – why in the DOODA do we need to “understand” why their personal ethics are what they are?

      2. here’s another big problem:

        ” John Piscitelli, a stock broker who has been friends with the former first couple for more than 25 years, agreed that Maureen McDonnell was emphatic that he help her get more than 6,660 shares of Star stock she purchased in 2011 out of the her name before the end of the calendar year.

        Virginia law requires elected officials to disclose any stock held by them or their immediate family members that is worth at least $10,000. The first lady’s holdings at that time exceeded $15,000 in value.

        Under Maureen McDonnell’s direction, Piscitelli said, he sold her shares at a loss on December 20, 2011. Again, under her instruction, Piscitelli said he repurchased the shares on Jan. 20, 2012, after McDonnell had filed his financial disclosure for the previous year.

        Pressed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry, Piscitelli acknowledged that Maureen McDonnell had specifically mentioned reporting requirements in regards to her wishes and that the two had no discussions about whether her actions might have tax advantages.

        “As you sit here today, did the request make you uncomfortable?” Dry asked.

        “Yes,” Piscitelli conceded.”

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