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Former VA governor leans on marital struggles as defense to fight corruption charges

August 21, 2014 at 6:33 PM EST
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell returned to the stand in his public corruption trial, describing in detail how relations with his wife had broken down in order to show that the couple could not have jointly engaged in a criminal conspiracy. If convicted, the one-time rising star in GOP politics could face as much as 20 years in prison. Judy Woodruff learns more from Craig Carper of WCVE.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell found himself back on the witness stand today fighting charges of political corruption and talking openly about his marital struggles.

It marked a startling fall for the Republican, who just two years ago was on Mitt Romney’s short list of potential vice presidential candidates.

Reporters swarmed former Governor Bob McDonnell as he arrived at court today to take the stand for a second day in his public corruption trial.

QUESTION: Governor, in the spectrum of difficult things you have done in your life as governor, how does this rate, what you’re going to have to do today?

FMR. GOV. BOB MCDONNELL, R-Va.: Thirty-eight years of public service, I never thought I would be having to testify in a trial like this. So, yes, it’s difficult, for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In court, McDonnell described in detail how relations with his wife, Maureen, had broken down, including clashes over the way she treated her staff.

It’s part of a defense strategy to show the couple could not have engaged in a criminal conspiracy because they were barely speaking to each other. Prosecutors allege they accepted more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Richmond businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. to promote his dietary supplement company, Star Scientific.

The items included a Rolex watch with a price tag of more than $6,000. McDonnell testified Wednesday that his actions on behalf of the company didn’t go beyond typical constituent outreach.

The trial represents a stunning turn of events for the one-time rising star in Republican politics. If convicted, Virginia’s former governor and first lady could be sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison each and face large fines.

Craig Carper is a political reporter for WCVE Richmond, Virginia, Public Radio, and he was in the courtroom today.

Craig, thank you for being with us.

First, if you could, lay out for us the essence of the prosecution’s case against the governor and his wife.

CRAIG CARPER, WCVE: Sure. Well, thank you for having me, Judy.

The prosecution alleges here that the McDonnell — they’re alleging quid pro quo, that the McDonnells accepted this — these gifts and loans — now revised figures show that it’s $177,000 worth of gifts and loans — in exchange for official acts.

There’s a lot of talk about what constitutes an official act from the defense. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in terms of the prosecution’s case, what were their — who were their main witnesses? What was the main evidence they showed?

CRAIG CARPER: Sure.

Now, a lot — it’s fair to point out that a lot of these witnesses were called by both defense and prosecution. And, of course, they got the opportunity to cross-examine them. But, first, we saw some of the McDonnell family. Two of the children testified. We saw McDonnell’s sister later on testify for the defense.

She was also his business partner in some of these real estate investments that she made, the center of a lot of what these loans were going toward. We saw members of the McDonnell cabinet, friends, family. We have seen accountants, a lot of focus on the accountants and the McDonnells’ personal finances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about from the defense? How — how have they — what is the thrust of the case they’re presenting in the defense of the governor and Mrs. McDonnell?

CRAIG CARPER: Well, really, it’s twofold.

They’re showing — they’re trying to highlight — basically, a broken marriage is what they’re trying to show, that the McDonnells spent 22 years in public service in different capacities. And, with that, he spent less and less time at home, as his seniority grew in the house of delegates, then later as attorney general, and finally coming to a head as governor.

That’s one of the things the defense is trying to highlight. The other is that McDonnell really gave no special treatment to Mr. Williams that he wouldn’t give any other Virginia business. He ran on the platform “Bobs for jobs.” So he’s saying this is not unlike what he did for thousands of others.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are he and the other defense witnesses saying about the gifts, though, the Rolex watch, I guess the clothes that Mrs. McDonnell got, and the vacations and so forth?

CRAIG CARPER: Sure.

Well, there’s been, you know, an effort on the part of the defense to isolate Governor McDonnell as much as possible. Really, you have got the defense lawyers for Mr. McDonnell and Mrs. McDonnell kind of putting that blame on his wife, Maureen, really — I would say kind of — really pulling that blame on his wife, Maureen, the argument being that she wasn’t a public official, not an elected official.

And there were no laws against her doing things to benefit companies. You can’t really regulate private citizens in terms of gifts for acts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right, so the separation technique.

How is the governor himself doing on the stand? He was on the stand briefly yesterday, back again today.

CRAIG CARPER: Sure. Sure.

He’s — a local — a local columnist, Jeff Schapiro from The Richmond Times-Dispatch, I think summed it up very well. He said, this is Governor McDonnell’s final campaign. He’s in campaign mode. He’s very relaxed. He’s very calm, at times somber, and he’s certainly gotten a little more tired late into the day today, but very poised, very composed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he was also, as I understand it, from what I have read, emotional in describing his relationship with his wife. I mean, he got into some personal details about the two of them.

CRAIG CARPER: That’s true. That’s true. He did.

And, you know, he opened his testimony today saying that, you know, he’s a private person, and this makes him very uncomfortable. But he didn’t pull any punches today when highlighting his wife’s role in this scandal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is there any kind of consensus, Craig Carper, about whether the governor is helping his case, helping the defense or not? What are people saying?

CRAIG CARPER: I think he is, at this point.

I think that’s the general sense right now. It was — they needed to turn things around, because, yesterday, they heard some pretty — I don’t know — it was negative — they got — there was some negative cross questioning from the prosecution of one of their own witnesses who is a financial expert. And the prosecution was able to high light several holes in his testimony and the evidence he had presented.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just final question. We know Mrs. McDonnell not expected to testify. Is this case getting a lot of attention in the state of Virginia, people paying close attention to it?

CRAIG CARPER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

We have got just about every media outlet in the state here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Craig Carper with WCVE Public Radio, we thank you, in Richmond.

CRAIG CARPER: Thank you, Judy.