RICHMOND, Va. — The National Governors Association convention was fast approaching, promising an important stage for her politically ascendant husband. Organizers were pressing Gov. Bob McDonnell for details on his wife’s part of the agenda, and he felt she was being distracted.
A series of emails from late 2011 to early 2012, obtained by The Associated Press, show that nearly halfway into Bob McDonnell’s term, his wife was struggling with the position into which she’d been thrust.
A senior aide overheard the governor tell first lady Maureen McDonnell that “he needed her to make some decisions on NGA” and that her team should “find ways to take stress off of her.”
When the governor told Janet Polarek, now Kelly, that the staff needed “to get MM’s schedule under control,” she replied that his wife simply had taken on too many “projects” and needed to “scale them back.” Kristen Paynter Kaplan, the first lady’s senior aide, doubted that would help much.
“it’s almost like she’s just terribly board with nothing to do … so she just dwells and gets wound up,” Kaplan wrote in a Feb. 7, 2012, email. “but the task of even leaving the house gets her all crazy stressed.”
Kaplan’s suggestion: “i think she just needs some crazy pills.”
The correspondence reveals a woman who was often stressed and overwhelmed, and who made life difficult for those closest to her.
In January, a federal grand jury indicted the former first couple, who married in 1976, on 14 counts each of fraud and conspiracy in connection with more than $165,000 in loans and gifts from a Virginia businessman. Prosecutors say Jonnie Williams’ largesse was in exchange for the McDonnells’ help in promoting his company’s health care products.
The couple have pleaded not guilty, and Bob McDonnell — once considered a potential vice presidential running mate for Republican candidate Mitt Romney — insists he broke no laws.
Many observers blame the couple’s legal woes on Maureen McDonnell’s attempts to live up to her husband’s lofty position and political prospects. In the prosecutors’ telling, it was the 59-year-old’s desire to have finer things that led her to betray the public trust. But the emails obtained by the AP suggest a more complicated picture — of a woman in a high-profile position laboring against anxiety and self-doubt as she tried to adapt to life inside what she affectionately called “the people’s house.”
“She was in over her head,” Kathy Scott, who worked as McDonnell’s special assistant, told the AP Wednesday. “She never felt adequate, she never felt like she could keep up.”
The four-month email chain began in early October 2011, when the governor’s chief of staff, Martin L. Kent, reached out to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Performance Management Group for advice. According to its website, the PMG specializes in helping clients “maximizing organizational effectiveness.”
In this case, director Jim Burke and his staff were being asked to focus their talents on trying to help the first lady replace her housekeeper.
Although the correspondence does not spell it out, the request’s timing coincides with a bizarre incident reported on by several news outlets: The mother of five stripping down to her underwear and getting down on all fours to school a maid in the proper way to clean a bathroom floor.
“Then, according to four people close to the situation, she summoned two mansion staff members – professionals, not housekeepers – and directed them to strip down and scrub,” The Washington Post reported, adding that its sources requested anonymity to maintain their relationship with the administration.
Several staffers quit over the first lady’s alleged abusive behavior, and others drafted a letter to the governor, threatening to resign en masse, according to other reports. That letter has yet to surface, but the emails obtained by AP help fill out the picture.
On Oct. 7, 2011, Burke met with the first lady and staff. Over the next month, the PMG held a series of meetings with mansion staff.
Meanwhile, according to prosecutors, Maureen McDonnell was busy helping Williams’ company Star Scientific promote Anatabloc, a dietary supplement being touted as an anti-inflammatory wonder drug. She was the featured speaker at a Richmond dinner for health professionals and then flew on Williams’ private jet to a similar event in Michigan.
It was around this time that Kaplan — who got her master’s degree at VCU — joined the first lady’s team as senior aide.
Kaplan was excited about reworking her new boss’ schedule and reorganizing the staff. But the task of finding a new housekeeper quickly became priority No. 1.
The process — which Maureen McDonnell followed closely — dragged on so long that even the “unflappable” Burke, as Kaplan called him, was running out of patience.
“Let’s see if we can get this issue resolved this week,” he wrote to Kaplan in early December.
Scott said the governor was well aware of the problems between staff and his wife, and his presence would often have a calming effect on the first lady.
“But then he would get busy and she would slip,” Scott said.
Kaplan increasingly turned to Burke and PMG staffer Linda Pierce for moral support, or simply to vent about “this job where I work for a total crazy pants (and her 5 kids apparently),” as she wrote just before Christmas. “I spent Friday overnighting (son) Bobby’s text book (b/c he was too busy xmas shopping to do it) and exchanging $100 bills for the kids for ones that were ‘crisp’. Sigh.”
That Christmas, McDonnell gave her husband a $6,500 Rolex watch, paid for by Williams. The governor returned the gift once it was made public.
In October, Kelly had sent Burke a draft organizational chart for the first lady’s office. To implement and explain these changes, Burke and Pierce suggested a team-building event. They referred to it as the “FLOVA retreat,” but Kaplan knew what it really was: “an intervention.”
Things appeared to improve after the Jan. 4, 2012 meeting.
“MM has been better lately,” Kaplan wrote on Jan. 18, 2012. “she’s been using kind words with everyone …most of the time….and not calling much on off hours. … She does seem to be trying.”
But that positive energy would soon dissipate.
In late January 2012, Sarah Scarbrough — mansion director and the first lady’s spokeswoman — drafted a testy email and shared it with Kaplan. In it, she outlined how McDonnell had requested that they schedule more “media events” for her, then flew off to Florida without notifying her.
When Burke joked about McDonnell’s “grueling schedule,” Kaplan replied, “You kidding? that is all that is on her schedule and she still screamed at me to the point EPU (Executive Protection Unit) called to see if I was OK.”
Kaplan decided it was time for another intervention. According to the emails, the meeting took place on Feb. 10, 2012. Judging from Kaplan’s email to Burke and Pierce about “the volume, the swearing, storming off and then returning,” the meeting did not go well.
Kaplan’s timing was somewhat unfortunate. That same day, McDonnell sent an email to a top aide for the governor asking him to call Williams and find out why VCU and the University of Virginia hadn’t started doing clinical trials on Anatabloc.
“Gov wants to know why nothing has developed w studies after (Jonnie Williams) gave $200,000,” the first lady wrote, according to the indictment.
Kaplan told the AP Wednesday that it was “an honor” to work for the first lady and praised her co-workers. Other staffers in the email chain echoed high praise for their former team.
“We had some really awesome times,” Scarbrough said. “That said, yes, there were some issues.”
“To be honest, I would go back and do it all over again if I had the chance,” said Elizabeth Mancano, a former policy adviser to the first lady.
In a statement to the AP, Burke said the PMG team “demonstrated tremendous commitment to public service despite difficulties. At times, some members of the team expressed their personal frustrations — none of which is uncommon to us in our work with organizations.”
The McDonnells’ trial is scheduled for July. At their January arraignment, Maureen McDonnell told the judge she was taking medications for “concentration” and “anxiety.”
The couple are under a gag order, and their attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment.
In a draft of a speech Burke and Pierce helped her write in January 2012, the former first lady wrote about the values and “internal compass” her parents gave her growing up.
“When you do things on the edge, you eventually walk over the line,” she said. “And when you walk over the line, devastating things happen; because in this era of always on communication, you can’t hide anything anymore. People are going to find out.”
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