Trial turns to trips for former Va. first family

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The former assistant to the wealthy businessman at the center of the corruption case against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife took the stand Wednesday to talk about trips and checks for the former first family.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell are accused of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, then the CEO of dietary supplements maker Star Scientific Inc., in exchange for promoting his products.

His former assistant, Jerri Fulkerson, told the jury about arranging trips for members of the McDonnell family and writing checks for two loans totaling $70,000. She said she did so at the direction of her boss. Williams is expected to testify under immunity as the prosecution’s star witness.

When the trial started Tuesday, defense attorneys presented to jurors the sordid details of the McDonnells’ troubled marriage, part of a legal strategy some experts say may be a key part of their defense.

Maureen McDonnell’s lawyer, William A. Burck, told jurors during opening statements that the former first lady had a crush on Williams but was “duped” by him into thinking he cared for her. Burck said Maureen and Bob McDonnell were pretending to be a happy couple while he was serving as governor.

“They were barely on speaking terms,” Burck said.

A lawyer for the former governor said Bob McDonnell will testify on his own behalf and read an email in which he begged his wife to work things out with him.

“It fell upon blind eyes and deaf ears because that evening, Maureen was distracted by other interests,” defense attorney John Brownlee said.

Joseph E. diGenova, a former federal prosecutor not affiliated with the case, said the defense team is airing details of the couple’s troubled marriage as a way “to create some sympathy” and show that Bob McDonnell could have been unaware of the dealings between Maureen McDonnell and Williams.

“There’s always a risk the jury will think it’s a ploy,” diGenova said.

Robert D. Holsworth, a consultant and retired Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist, said the defense is trying to undermine a key part of the prosecution’s case.

“Basically, they’re saying there’s no conspiracy because there’s no marriage,” Holsworth said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber said McDonnell and his wife betrayed the public’s trust by lining their pockets with “secret gifts and cash.” McDonnell, who left office in January, had a duty “not to sell the power and influence of his office to the highest bidder,” Aber said.

McDonnells’ attorneys sought to have them tried separately, but the judge refused. The former first lady’s attorneys have suggested that she was not an elected or paid official and, therefore, not subject to the same scrutiny as her husband.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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