RICHMOND, Va. — Former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and his wife, Maureen, on trial for conspiring to use his office for personal enrichment, outlined an unexpected defense Tuesday: Their marriage was so broken that they did not communicate enough to conspire about anything.
In opening statements in the couple's corruption trial in federal court here, their attorneys made clear that they planned to rely on the sordid details of their unhappy union as the basis of their legal defense. It was the first time the McDonnells' version of events had been heard in a widely publicized case that for months has been characterized by the lengthy indictment against them, which charges the couple with accepting more than $165,000 in cash and luxury gifts from a Virginia businessman.
Maureen McDonnell, her attorney said, had a "crush" on the businessman, Jonnie Williams, the prosecutors' star witness, who the government said would detail the designer clothing, vacations, golf rounds and cash he provided in exchange for the governor's help in promoting his company, which made a dietary supplement.
Williams was a frequent visitor to the Executive Mansion, where he and Maureen McDonnell would meet privately.
He was known as "Maureen's favorite playmate," attorney William Burck told jurors. "Maureen McDonnell and Jonnie Williams had a relationship some would consider improper for two people not married."
Over two years, Maureen McDonnell and Williams exchanged 1,200 phone calls and texts.
The government said that for Williams, it was about making money.
Jessica Aber, the assistant U.S. attorney trying the case, said: "For Mr. Williams, this was a business transaction. He was paying for help with his company."
According to both sides, Williams gained access to the governor by befriending the state's first lady, spending some $19,000 on a New York City shopping spree for designer clothes and accessories, and buying a $6,500 Rolex watch for her to present to her husband.
The motives of Williams, a vigorous entrepreneur known variously as a super salesman and someone whose businesses repeatedly ran afoul of government regulators, are likely to be front and center in the trial.
Prosecutors do not portray Williams as an angel. Aber described him dismissively as "a vitamin salesman." But she alleged a quid pro quo between gifts to the McDonnells and the governor's actions on his behalf.
If convicted on all counts, the McDonnells face more than 20 years in prison. Bob McDonnell, limited to one term under state law, left office in January.