The trial of former VA Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on 14 counts of conspiracy and corruption related to over $150,000 of gifts and loans, received from business man Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., took an absurd turn during the defense opening statements on Tuesday. The defense of Bob McDonnell contends that Maureen McDonnell was the reason for the many gifts received as she had a crush of some sort on Jonnie Williams. His defense asserts that his wife caused the problem. Former DC Mayor Marion Barry made similar comments as a result of his cocaine arrest with former girlfriend, Hazel Diane “Rasheeda” Moore, saying the “b— set me up.” That sentiment did not work well for Barry and is not likely to work for McDonnell. Throwing his wife under the bus to save himself may backfire.
While the case still rests on the testimony of Jonnie Williams, Sr., who has his own issues with telling the truth, the prosecution will corroborate William’s testimony with the actions of the McDonnells and documents. And on the first day of trial, the McDonnell’s daughter, Cailin McDonnell Young was first called to the witness stand. It was her wedding reception that Williams paid $15,000. According to accounts in the Washington Post, she testified that she met Williams after he and his wife were having dinner at the governor’s mansion. Following their initial brief 10 minute conversation, Williams offered to pay for her reception. It will be interesting to see what Williams will testify as to why he offered to pay for the McDonnell’s daughter wedding reception, immediately following his dinner meeting with Bob McDonnell. Williams started testifying late on Wednesday afternoon.
The defense wants to portray Mrs. McDonnell as having a crush on Williams and seeking attention from him through gifts. But the problem lies with some of the gifts. For starters, there will be documentary evidence of Bob McDonnell requesting “another $20K loan” from Williams. At least two loans were received. And of course, Williams’ reply is “done.” Neither loan was subsequently reported on a later bank loan application. And there will be the photograph of Bob McDonnell driving Williams’ convertible Ferrari on a family vacation at a million dollar lake property paid for by Jonnie Williams. If Mrs. Donnell was so infatuated with Williams, she didn’t stop lavishing her husband with family vacations and gifts, like the Rolex watch she requested that Williams buy and engrave for her husband.
The defense wants to rely on the fact that there could be no conspiracy because the two were not talking and Mrs. McDonnell was spending text and phone time with Williams. In some ways, this defense presents a very slippery slope for the defendants. The prosecution evidence will show that former VA Governor Bob McDonnell had direct contact with Williams and arranged meetings and his launch at the Governor’s mansion. By attempting to place the blame on a failed marriage and portraying Mrs. McDonnell as an infatuated woman scorned by her husband may likely offend the women jurors. Throwing women under the bus as McDonnell is doing and Marion Barry did, rarely works.
A better defense would be for Bob McDonnell to portray himself as a rising political star with an impeccable background, likeable VA Governor, a former Attorney General who knew the boundaries of the law and would never cross them with anyone, let alone the likes of Jonnie R. Williams. And the defense could bring in a who’s who of prominent Republican leaders to testify as to how squeaky clean that McDonnell is/was. This appears to now be their fall back defense. But by mudding the waters with the new bomb shell defense and revelation that Mrs. McDonnell is to blame may push women jurors more towards the prosecution’s case. Throwing women under the bus and in essence saying the “b—set you up” rarely works.
Debbie Hines is a practicing trial lawyer and former prosecutor who has tried hundreds of cases. She founded LegalsSpeaks in 2009 covering race and gender in the law. She also contributes to the Women’s Media Center