Witness: McDonnell struggled to rein in his wife

August 18, 2014 - 5:08 PM
APTOPIX Former Governor Trial

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, center, arrives at federal court with his attorneys, John Brownlee, left, and Henry Asbill, right, in Richmond, Va., Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. McDonnell presents his defense in his corruption trial today. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Former Gov. Bob McDonnell struggled to rein in his wife's erratic behavior, causing turmoil throughout the executive staff and nearly prompting a mass resignation among workers in the governor's mansion, a defense witness testified Monday.

Other former McDonnell administration officials said the ex-governor never pressed them to help the onetime CEO of a nutritional supplements company who wanted state tobacco commission funding for universities to conduct research on his chief product, the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc.

After prosecutors presented nearly three weeks of testimony in the public corruption trial of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, lawyers for the former Republican governor opened their defense with even more testimony that portrayed his wife badly, saying she lashed out when she didn't get her way.

The McDonnells are charged in a 14-count indictment with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his company's products.upplements.

The tight relationship between Maureen McDonnell and Williams has been a key issue at trial, with the former governor's lawyers suggesting that she acted largely on her own to promote the tobacco-based Anatabloc.

Janet Kelly, who served as secretary of the commonwealth under McDonnell, said she was personally fond of Maureen McDonnell and was reluctant to bash her any further. One former Maureen McDonnell staffer has acknowledged calling her old boss a "nutbag" while another said Bob McDonnell was in denial about his wife's "mental capacity."

"I don't want to just pile on," Kelly said, fighting back tears.

But Kelly said she had known about Maureen's "challenging behavior" for years and that she took the job as secretary of the commonwealth only after receiving assurances she wouldn't have to deal with Maureen.

She eventually agreed to have contact with her, she testified, when she learned that Maureen McDonnell was yelling at her husband nightly about the sorts of issues that Kelly had been ducking.

Kelly and other staffers intervened to thwart a mass resignation of the mansion staff, in which they wrote a joint letter stating that "to be treated like naughty children any time something doesn't suit you is completely unacceptable."

Kelly said the letter would be counterproductive because Maureen McDonnell was "pathologically incapable of accepting any responsibility."

On the other hand, Kelly described the former governor as "extraordinarily gracious" and even-tempered.

"There was never a time he made me feel uncomfortable. Never a time I questioned his motives," she said.

Kelly testified that while the relationship between the McDonnells appeared to be strained, she said she observed Maureen McDonnell and Williams acting "kind of flirty" on a plane trip in 2012.

Defense attorneys have said the marriage was on the rocks and that Maureen had developed a crush on Williams, suggesting that the McDonnells could not have engaged in a criminal conspiracy because they were barely speaking.

Kelly, who played a key role in handing out jobs and appointments, testified that she was never asked to give any appointments or jobs to Williams or executives from his company. McDonnell wanted only the "best and the brightest" to serve in his administration, regardless of their political connections, she said.

Bob McDonnell's lawyer, Henry Asbill, sought to dispel the notion that McDonnell's influence could be bought, asking Kelly what the former governor's philosophy was for dealing with donors.

"If you can't take someone's money and vote against their bill the next day, you shouldn't be in politics," Kelly said.

Her testimony painted a different picture than that of another cabinet secretary, Bill Hazel. Testifying for prosecutors, he said that as health secretary he met with Williams only because McDonnell asked him to.

Two other members of McDonnell's cabinet — the secretaries of education and commerce — testified Monday that it was not unusual for the governor to ask them to meet with people who wanted help from the state. However, those witnesses and the longtime state finance secretary said they never heard a word from McDonnell about Williams or Star Scientific.

Neal Noyes, retired director of the tobacco commission, also testified that McDonnell did not lobby for a grant to study Anatabloc.

Before testimony began, Judge James R. Spencer told lawyers that a third juror has been excused from the case, this one to tend to a family emergency. That leaves only one alternate.

Bob McDonnell is expected to testify in his own defense at some point in the trial.