UPDATED: Aug. 6, 2014 10:42 p.m.
RICHMOND, Va. — The onetime chief of staff to Virginia’s former first lady said Wednesday that she never saw any hint of a romantic relationship between her boss and a wealthy businessman.
Mary-Shea Sutherland testified in the public corruption trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, that the couple’s marriage seemed solid. She said Maureen McDonnell even let her read a “lovely” poem her husband had written to her for a special occasion in 2011.
Prosecutors asked Sutherland about the McDonnells’ relationship to counter a defense assertion that the union was strained, and that Maureen McDonnell developed a crush on former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams. That claim in last week’s opening statements suggests a defense that the McDonnells could not have conspired in a gifts-for-favors scheme because they were not communicating.
Williams, testifying under immunity for the government, also denied any romantic involvement with Maureen McDonnell. Sutherland testified Wednesday that she saw no romantic sparks between the two.
The McDonnells are charged in a 14-count indictment with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Williams in exchange for promoting his dietary supplements company’s products, primarily the anti-inflammatory Anatabloc. They could face decades in prison if convicted.
Sutherland testified that the McDonnells agreed to use the governor’s mansion in August 2011 to help Star Scientific with its launch of Anatabloc. Maureen McDonnell was insistent that the governor attend the luncheon and was not happy when the governor’s scheduler initially said he couldn’t make it because of a conflict.
“The FL (first lady) isn’t going to be happy about it,” Sutherland wrote in an email when she was told the governor couldn’t attend. Eventually, the governor’s staff reworked his schedule to he could attend the latter part of the luncheon.
Sutherland was heavily involved in organizing the event. She rejected a defense attorney’s suggestion that she was trying to curry favor with Williams because she planned to quit her job and wanted him to hire her.
“I was doing my job,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland portrayed working for Maureen McDonnell as a hellish and sometimes bizarre experience, saying she was the target of frequent angry outbursts. At least twice, Sutherland said, the governor’s security officers overheard the yelling and checked on Sutherland to see if she was all right, she said.
She acknowledged that she told investigators Maureen McDonnell was “a nutbag.”
Sutherland recalled one “particularly ugly day at the mansion” that prompted her to seek out the governor’s chief of staff to complain. She ran into Bob McDonnell, who saw she was upset and invited her into his office to talk. McDonnell asked her to understand that wife had a tough time trying to get used to her new role and that her father had recently died, Sutherland said.
“I pushed back a little,” Sutherland said. She told McDonnell that she, too, had recently lost both parents but never treated anyone so shabbily.
Sutherland said her boss was often suspicious of others, once texting her that the mansion chef served her bad shrimp to try to ruin her holidays.
During a break in Sutherland’s testimony, Bob McDonnell hugged her in the hallway and the two exchanged pleasantries. Prosecutor Michael Dry complained about the incident to the judge, saying the defendant had no business having any contact with a witness — especially one who wasn’t finished testifying.
“Don’t let it happen again,” U.S. District Judge James Spencer said.
Sutherland also said her boss also told her that she and the governor “were buried in debt,” bolstering the government’s claim that the McDonnells were financially desperate.
In June 2011, Sutherland even gave Maureen McDonnell a $6,000 personal loan, which the first lady repaid a few months later.
Sutherland also said she used her credit card to buy inaugural attire for Maureen McDonnell, whose own card “was maxed out.”
That was only after aides to the governor nixed the idea of allowing Williams to buy an inaugural dress, which Sutherland said angered Maureen McDonnell. The first lady-to-be told Williams she would take “a rain check,” witnesses have said, and she cashed it in with a Manhattan shopping spree in 2011 financed by Williams. She came away with about $20,000 in dresses and accessories from Bergdorf Goodman, Louis Vuitton and Oscar de la Renta.
It was during that shopping spree that Sutherland said she first heard Williams broach the idea that a state university could study Anatabloc, which would give the product credibility. She said Williams often discussed the idea in front of Maureen McDonnell, and she agreed it was a good idea.
“It was a Virginia product and it should be studied in Virginia,” Sutherland said, summarizing the first lady’s viewpoint.
Sutherland said she was also a fan of Anatabloc, took the pills herself, and even bought stock in the company.
“It made my back much better,” she said.
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