In December 2009, Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, traveled to New York City for an event at the Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street. Bob had already been elected to be the next governor of Virginia, but he was still a few weeks away from taking the oath of office.
At the hotel, the couple made time to meet with a man named Jonnie Williams. A longtime boom-and-bust businessman who was then the CEO of a struggling Virginia dietary supplements company called Star Scientific, Williams had asked one of the governor-elect’s staff members to set up the meeting. According to federal court documents filed this week, the McDonnell campaign made use of Williams’ private plane during the election season, but Williams was only able to meet briefly with McDonnell while he was a candidate. At the Four Seasons, they had more time to talk together. During the meeting, Maureen McDonnell had something she wanted to talk to Williams about, too. She wanted help finding a designer dress to wear to her husband’s inauguration, according to the documents. Williams agreed to pay for it.
The McDonnells were both indicted this week on public corruption charges for allegedly accepting and concealing tens of thousands of dollars in payments and gifts from Williams. The case against them begins with the conversation about the dress. In the government’s telling, it was Maureen McDonnell who initiated the gifts-and-cash aspect of the McDonnells’ relationship with Williams. When one of the governor-to-be’s senior aides later pushed back against the idea of Williams buying her inauguration dress, Maureen got mad.
“I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget,” she wrote in an email to the aide on Dec. 21, 2009. “I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.”
Maureen later told Williams she would take a “rain check” on the dress.
The indictment against the McDonnells is full of similar moments, which portray the former Virginia First Couple, and Maureen in particular, as the takers in their relationship with Williams. (Here’s a good place to remember that Williams has been cooperating with prosecutors since the summer.) The result is a reversal of a standard scandal script. Instead of a donor shaking down a politician, it was the politician and his wife allegedly shaking down the donor.
Another example: On May 2, 2011, Williams met privately with Maureen at Virginia’s Executive Mansion. Maureen confessed to Williams that she and Bob were having serious money problems. They didn’t know how they were going to pay for their daughter’s upcoming wedding. She asked Williams for a $50,000 loan and, after he asked how much money was needed for the wedding, she asked for an additional $15,000 to cover catering costs. Maureen also, according to the indictment, told Williams she “could help Star Scientific but that she needed [his] financial assistance.”
For those who have been following the story, Maureen’s prominent role in the indictment was not a surprise. Her part in the case began getting serious attention in mid-2013, when the governor and his team began drawing bright lines between her past actions and his.
“I was not in a role of promoting Star Scientific,” Bob said publicly in July. “There was an event held at the mansion in 2011. The event was arranged by the First Lady’s office.”
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Maureen over the summer communicated to prosecutors that she felt responsible for her and her husband’s relationship with Williams. Her attorney asked if there was a way to resolve the case without charges for Bob. According to the Post, prosecutors weren’t interested. Months later, Bob reportedly rejected a proposed deal where he would have pleaded guilty to a single felony bank fraud charge while his wife avoided charges.
The indictment made public this week does provides plenty of examples of Bob McDonnell availing himself of Williams’ deep pockets. (At one point the governor allegedly sent Williams a text message asking for $20,000.) But it’s Maureen’s words and actions that stand out the most.
“Pls call [Williams] today get him to fill u in on where this is at,” Maureen wrote on Feb. 10, 2012 to the same governor’s aide she had emailed about the inauguration dress. “Gov wants to know why nothing has developed w studies after [Williams] gave $200,000. I’m just trying to talk w [Williams]. Gov wants to get this going w VCU MCV.”
The email followed an earlier one concerning the possibility of state universities submitting grant applications to research one of Star Scientific’s products.
Since the indictment was filed on Tuesday, both Bob McDonnell and his legal team have argued that he broke no laws when he accepted the gifts and money from Williams. (Last year, Bob announced that he and his family had repaid and returned $120,000 in “loans” and tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from Williams.) But the case against the McDonnells also alleges that the couple took steps to conceal the money they’d received from Williams. Bob filled out a loan application that left out Williams loans to him and his family, while Maureen, once again, took more dramatic action.
On Feb. 28, 2013, law enforcement agents interviewed Maureen McDonnell. According to the indictment, Maureen lied to the agents about the $50,000 loan Williams had given the McDonnells, saying she had signed a written loan agreement and that she was making periodic payments. She also claimed that her husband had met Williams “many years ago,” when, she said, they worked together at a hospital supply company. A number of days later, Maureen gave a box and a letter to Williams’ brother, and asked him to deliver it to Williams for her. In the box was some of the clothing Williams had bought for Maureen back in 2011 during a luxury shopping trip in New York. There was also a handwritten note made out to Williams and his wife.
“I can’t begin to thank you how special you made me feel on [the McDonnells’ daughter’s] wedding day and on our 35th Wedding Anniversary Day all dressed up in the beautiful outfits you adorned me in on both momentous occasions,” Maureen wrote. “I’m so happy we’ve been able to share so many significant milestones in our lives with you both! I truly hope your daughter will now be able to enjoy these lovely outfits and show them off on many grand occasions. If not, I’m sure there are many exemplary charitable organizations like we talked about who would welcome the opportunity to auction them for a wonderful cause having been worn only once by the First Lady of Virginia to her daughter’s Wedding at the Executive Mansion and celebrating her 35th Wedding Anniversary with the Governor. Actually, if that happens I think I’ll be there to bid on them myself! Please know that we cherish our friendship with you and look forward to many more wonderful memories together ahead! XOXO! Maureen McDonnell”