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McDonnell trial: First lady Maureen McDonnell "just didn't have the capacity"

RICHMOND — A string of high-ranking officials from Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration took the stand in his corruption trial Monday to say he never asked them for anything untoward, and never anything for Star Scientific.

No grants, though the governor controlled at least two state funds, with millions of dollars available a year.

No budget earmarks, though the governor built the state budget with his finance team.

No government appointments, no site visits and no executive orders to help Star or advance its chief product, Anatabloc.

“The Boy Scout of the year,” former Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly said of her old boss. “Mr. Honest.”

Of course, McDonnell isn’t accused of doing any of these things in the 14-count, 43-page indictment against him and his wife. The couple is accused of arranging meetings, hosting and attending events geared toward Star, encouraging university researchers to study Anatabloc and giving Star’s then-CEO, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., an unusual power to invite guests to events at the governor’s mansion, all while taking more than $177,000 from Williams in gifts and loans.

The McDonnell defense, which began rolling out its case Monday after nearly three weeks of witnesses and evidence from the prosecution, says there was no tit-for-tat in the relationship. The governor treated Williams and his business like any other Virginia company, even though he easily could have been more helpful than he was, attorneys argued.

Kelly, formerly Janet Polarek, testified that she could have invited her own doctor to a health care leaders reception that Williams helped draft a guest list. Other cabinet secretaries said they held so many meetings at the governor’s behest they could never remember them all, and that the governor rarely followed up.

They felt empowered, they said, to do whatever they felt was right.

The defense also honed back in on the governor’s wife, Maureen McDonnell.

Henry Asbill, one of Bob McDonnell’s lead attorneys, pushed Kelly for details about the first lady’s erratic behavior, which has already been documented repeatedly in this trial.

Part of the governor’s defense — and the first lady’s, since she likely won’t be proven guilty of corruption if he isn’t — is that Maureen McDonnell was an unhappy, lonely woman taken with the smooth-talking, wealthy Williams and his fascinating claims about Anatabloc.

“I don’t want to just pile on,” Kelly said Monday, tearing up a bit as Asbill waited for details.

Kelly, a family friend as well as senior administration official, described Maureen McDonnell as “very difficult, very demanding and very diva-ish” on the gubernatorial campaign trail. Once her husband took office, she drove staffers to the brink with her screams, demands and accusations, she testified.

“She would freak out at little things and just generally take it out on other people,” Kelly said.

In January 2012, a few months after Maureen McDonnell's chief of staff quit over similar issues, things boiled over. Mansion staffers wrote the first lady a letter and threatened to resign en masse, Kelly said.

They said they had a “sick feeling” whenever they looked at their phones, and the caller ID said “FLOVA” — first lady of Virginia. Kelly said she and Martin Kent, the governor’s chief of staff, asked staffers not to deliver that letter.

“She just didn't have the capacity to receive the letter...,” Kelly said. “(She was) pathologically incapable of being able to take responsibility.”

Maureen McDonnell sat quietly in court as this testimony went into the record. Her husband watched nearby, taking the occasional note. Lawyers separated them at an L-shaped arrangement of tables, as they have every day during this trial.

Kelly said “the substance” of the McDonnell’s marriage didn’t seem to back up their public displays of affection. She testified that Maureen McDonnell seemed “flirty” with Williams during a plane ride the three shared to an event for presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Kelly acknowledged during a prosecutors cross examination, though, that she didn’t mention this when FBI investigators asked if she ever heard rumors of a romance between Williams and the first lady.

Kelly also testified that the first lady was a longtime believer in vitamins and similar products, called nutraceuticals. Others have testified to the same thing, and Maureen McDonnell’s main attorney told jurors during his opening statement that she “drank the Kool-Aid” on Anatabloc, a tobacco-derived supplement that Williams has said will be as big as the discovery of penicillin.

Maureen McDonnell was in the supplement business long before she met Williams. Kelly said her husband asked her to stop trying to sell them to campaign donors, and to set aside her part-time business completely when the couple moved into the governor's mansion.

“I don't think she liked either one (of those requests),” Kelly said.

Monday also brought testimony from Neal Noyes, the former executive director of the Virginia tobacco commission. Williams wanted a grant from the commission to help fund Anatabloc studies at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, but never got one.

In fact, no one ever applied for this grant, Noyes testified, though emails in evidence showed some preliminary conversations. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry pointed out, though, that the formal request never came because U.Va. and VCU never got all the way on board with Star’s request.

Star Scientific couldn’t ask for the grant itself, Noyes testified. It had to have a nonprofit, such as the university research arms, apply in its stead.

Still, Noyes also testified that the governor never pushed the commission toward Star. He said the only time McDonnell visited the commission’s 31-member board to lobby for a grant was on “an entirely different project.”

Defense attorneys laid out half a dozen or more other examples of times the governor helped obtain funding or publicly supported companies through a variety of methods. That included a breakfast meeting on how to make Virginia chick peas more suitable for Sabra hummus, which has a plant in Chesterfield County, McDonnell Secretary of Commerce and Trade James Cheng testified.

Researchers were invited to that meeting, along with company executives, Cheng testified. The comparison was clear: Williams also invited university researchers to a mansion luncheon for Anatabloc.

The trial continues Tuesday, which will be the 17th day. The jury has changed a bit since the trial began, and another juror was excused Monday.

A white male juror had a family emergency out of state, U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer said, and was replaced with a black woman from the alternate pool. That leaves just one alternate left, and the jury is now seven white people and five black, and seven men with five women.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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