RICHMOND, August 1, 2014 — Forget the afternoon soap operas, for the next five weeks there is something with more drama, more campy story lines and more surprising lust then anything that can be watched on television in the afternoon, the Governor McDonnell trial has started in Virginia.
It has been just over a year since The Washington Post first broke the story of the sitting Virginia governor accepting gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams, Sr., CEO of the vitamin company, Star Scientific, in exchange for special treatment and promotion of his company.
Although initially the scandal was large enough to end any talk of McDonnell as a viable presidential or even vice presidential candidate, it faded away with time as other more pressing news stories developed, but from the very first day of the trial, it became clear that this was not going to be a run of the mill boring event.
Up until the trial, the McDonnell’s party line was that they were friends with Mr. Williams and they accepted gifts from a friend as anyone would.
Opening arguments of the trial this week turned that story on its head.
With what is being called the “crush defense”, the soap opera began.
The couple’s defense team claimed that the McDonnell’s marriage had become an unhappy one with the former Virginia first lady being lonely and developing a crush on Jonnie Walker.
This defense is not only going to provide the public with daily gossip, it might also actually get the McDonnell’s acquitted.
If the defense can prove that Maureen McDonnell asked for gifts and shopping trips as a way to get attention from a man she was romantically interested in, this would shatter that prosecution’s accusation that the governor and his wife were co-conspirators of a crime.
The most obvious problem with the salacious defense is, how does this explain the gifts that were for the benefit of the governor himself? Wasn’t it Bob McDonnell who was driving the Ferrari? Wasn’t it the governor who was on the golf trips?
Further complicating the crush defense is Jonnie Williams, who took the stand under the cloak of immunity on Wednesday.
The government’s key witness started his testimony with a story of how Maureen McDonnell had asked him to help her get a gown for the 2010 inauguration, but told him before the shopping trip that she would need to take a “rain check” after an aid to her husband had told her that she could not do that.
In April 2011, Virginia’s first lady contacted him to say that he could buy her a dress.
With this request a high end Manhattan shopping spree was arranged. A shopping trip which took so long, William’s told McDonnell’s accompanying chief of staff to try dresses on as well and he ended up buying items for both women, totaling over $20,000.
Williams testified that a month later, Maureen McDonnell asked him to her home to discuss the family’s financial difficulties.
He said that Ms. McDonnell told him that she could help him with his business but he would need to help them with their money problems. She told him that the governor had given his approval for this plan.
Mr. Williams testified that he ended up calling Bob McDonnell before writing any checks to make sure that he was aware of the situation. He ultimately wrote a check for $50,000 and another one for $15,000 to help cover the catering expenses for the McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding reception.
He claims to have written the checks because he wanted help to get product research at state universities, “This was a business relationship”.
On the second day of testimony, Mr. Williams reported that he had denied some of the requests made by Maureen McDonnell such as cars for the McDonnell children and secret stock transfers to then Governor McDonnell because he believed they would be too visible and unable to be hidden.
If convicted, the McDonnell’s could face decades in prison.
The McDonnell’s have pleaded not guilty, claiming that they have repaid most of the money and that their actions were legal.
With this much excitement in the first few days of the trial, it is hard to imagine what will happen over the next four weeks.