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AP Exclusive: Va. executive mansion in disarray

Wednesday - 3/5/2014, 6:50pm  ET

ALAN SUDERMAN
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- 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.

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